Saturday, 29 December 2012

An Albanian in Britain (1) - personal experiences

Observing the English is one of my favourite activities. A little bit similar to what the author of 'Watching the English' does but without the scope of producing an anthropology. 

The material is everywhereI have been living in the UK for four years after spending the ten previous years living between France where I was studying and Albania my home country, so I often compare and have different cultural perspectives. My most common observation spots are the tube, pubs and restaurants, the supermarket or the cinema, and of course playgrounds and the streets. Friends and work colleagues provide another more 'in depth' source of observation.

A wedding present, this rug represents the union of an Albanian with an English. 

Englishness is quite easy to observe as it is quite distinct. By that I mean the collection of behaviours that are quite typically British. There are many such distinctive traits but I am going to concentrate only on three of them: a measured way of participating in conversations, not saying what one thinks and engaging with children as if they were grown ups.

If I was with my Albanian friends at home and we were having a drink and talking there would generally be quite a loud and noisy product with each of us trying to talk and never leaving an empty space in the conversation. Conversations can get loud to the point of giving outsiders the impression of arguments when in fact it is only slightly heated debates. Quite differently with English friends they would be looking around and wait for a moment of pause to make sure no one else is planning to talk which means that they can go ahead. The same can be said about actions. I don't know which way is best, the spontaneous way or the measured one but I can say I often miss the former.

A weekend away with friends in the South of Albania - we are very 'excited'. 

                                          Our wedding British guests 

Other times I feel a natural reaction coming out of me in the form of commentary or confusion 'why do I find it so hard to understand what they (the English friends or colleagues ) think'. The answer 'because they don't like to say clearly what they think' reveals a typical English characteristic. That is it, you may look for clear answers to questions about peoples behaviours or actions and the English will give you a smile or a confused line which they can put together without much effort.

                           Mmmmmm what do you mean? 

I used to find it quite frustrating and difficult when I first started working here to understand how my work was seen, as being good or average or less than that. Despite the outward signs being good, i.e. after the trial period I was hired; people I worked with kept saying I was doing a good job I needed more detail and more direct feedback. I wanted comments on the way I was approaching work and people but they weren't many. I still look for direct commentary but after four years I have stopped being unsure and upset and I assume that I am doing well until someone tells me otherwise. I guess that's a pragmatic type of behaviour I must have picked somewhere around me! People not telling you what they think is normal (if they did that would be very surprising) and the type of feedback I am looking for needs concentration time and an analysis-like type of approach. Not sure who would have the time and inclination to do that. In fact I should get someone else if I needed to, rather than my work colleagues and pay them for it. Quite the opposite that kind of 'unqualified' but personalised type of commentary on my work behaviour would come for free from my Albanian colleagues. They would be more than happy to provide it even without being asked.

People not saying what they think can be frustrating and misleading. But there are occasions especially at work and in meetings when it can be useful. In Albania people generally don't agree with each other and say immediately what they think. From my time working in the public administration I have often heard people in meetings say after someone has spoken 'you are wrong, I don't think you are proposing the best approach to develop our strategic objectives'. Such comments have put the conversation on hold as the two participants spent time clarifying what they meant and others intervened, before another speaker started on a similar fashion. These meetings can be amusing as you see strong characters emerging but can also be very inefficient. A constructive and more 'appeasing' alternative would be to say 'this is a great idea, however I think there are other ways to achieve what we are looking for'. One might not think that but there are other ways and a different time to express a differing opinion. 

In the mix of my 'different' perspectives sometime I will throw in a French regard which reinforces the difference with the English. For instance I have heard my French friends talk to their children using a slightly louder and order-like tone, and I have felt the English eyebrows lifting up in reaction to what they can see as you telling the child off. Instead of 'allez, you stop playing now, it is dinner time' the English form would be 'would you like to stop playing now darling as it is tea time?' The French don't love their children less but they are more direct and conversely they don't think the English love their children more but they seem to view the English way as one where the child is considered more of a king. To the English defence I don't believe that is the case but it is a different form of communication involving the child rather than just giving orders. Again I would be more comfortable with the later (the non English way which is also quite similar to the Albanian form).

So when it comes to my behaviour I oscillate between three different ways. I adjust quite quickly and without much effort. 

I find the differences between the different ways amusing (but sometimes odd) and I realise that there is not one way which is better. I wish more people realised that and stopped believing that the way they the English or the French or the Albanian do things is the best. As a matter of fact Albanians don't have that kind of confidence and always criticise themselves and see the way other people do things and organise themselves as more desirable so they wouldn't say loudly how good their direct style is for example but they would rather say we Albanians are direct. Although they don't recognise their way as being the best deep down they feel most comfortable when operating within their ways.

So to sum up as an Albanian in Britain I am always observing, taking notes and naturally drawing parallels with Albania and France since I spent a long time there too (seven years) and did the same, observed the French. I used to concentrate on the French oddities and keep a critical eye on their sense of superiority - the French cultural exception for example - but again the oddities amused me. Similarly the British ways are amusing although sometimes frustrating too.

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