Saturday 3 January 2015

Why are you talking to me? An aspect of culture shock.

I thought moving to South Africa from the UK was a culture shock, but trust me, nothing compares to moving to Dubai from SouthAfrica.

When you first visit a foreign country, even as a tourist, you just assume things work the same as the do in the country you're from, just in a different accent.

You assume everyone who speaks English will speak the same english that you do, you assume they will understand your accent, phrases, local dialect, sense of humour.

If you're visiting for a short period, you'll not realise the differences other than maybe just thinking that the local people are just a 'bit thick' for knowing that what you've ordered to eat or drink just isn't known as that where you come from. You will have probably spent your time shouting in order to get yourself heard, or speaking in the slow monotone voice over and over on the off chance they'll eventually understand your request. And of course you've got the tour guide on hand to help you out.

OK so I acknowledge I'm generalising here, but I've witnessed this and also made the same assumptions.

Having been in South Africa for 4 years where there are 11 official languages I was surprised at how many people spoke english as maybe their 3rd or 4th language and how many people actually struggled with any language other than their own.

There aren't a lot of english people in South African, there are a lot of South Africans who call themselves english due to their heritage, but in general you don't meet many expats over there. There are of course the diplomats, with rules and regulations on where they can and can't go, a lot of foreign investment bringing in short term contractors and their family, but to hear an english voice for me in South Africa was a novelty and always made me turn my head and start a conversation.

Here in Dubai, everyone talks to you, the lift guy (did you have a good new year) the doorman (been anywhere nice today) the shop assistants (are you here on holiday) people walking down the street say 'hello' and smile, children on the train chatter away, I can't enter the breakfast room without first having a conversation with the waiter about my night, my sleep, my plans for today.

I'm not complaining, I just find it weird after 4 years of living in south Africa, where people rarely say hello, they do of course say 'Hi, how are you?' in a shop but you're only supposed to answer 'I'm good thanks and you?' 9 times out of 10 they ask 'how are you?' and add 'I'm good' before you've had time to answer, they're not really interested.

Not long after I'd been in South Africa a woman asked if the chair was taken. I smiled, said no it was free and she took it away. I was so disappointed, this was the first stranger who had spoken to me, I had hoped someone would join me at the table, smile, say hello, strike up a conversation, potential friendship, but no, that's not how South Africa works.

Back in January in Dubai when a woman asked if the chair was taken and I said it was free, she sat with me and I was rather startled to the extent she apologised and said she'd sit someone else.

I'm afraid I'm probably coming across as being rather rude here in Dubai, people are chatting to me and I'm not responding, not answering, missing opportunities. I'm on high alert, I'm not relaxed. I don't feel scared in Dubai, I've become South African, in my thoughts, feelings and actions and moving into this multi cultural society is a culture shock for me.

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