Friday, January 9, 2015

Insulation vs. immersion

I've been thinking a lot about the degrees of immersion or insulation expats experience in Germany and how that effects their overall experience in the country.  There is a lot of variation due to personality and individual flexibility but overall the level of immersion vs. insulation can determine how well someone integrates into German culture. 

High levels of immersion come from things like speaking German, having German friends, having German family, living in areas where people do not speak English, the amount of time spent in Germany, sending your child to German schools and kindergartens, living outside of city centers, having a job that requires you to speak German and work with Germans.   On the other side things that insulate foreigners from German culture are having international friends, spending a limited amount of time in the country, speaking your native language, remaining within the boundaries of cosmopolitan areas, international or bi-lingual schools, working at international companies and having a spouse and family not from Germany.

Now most people will probably assume that a high level of immersion will result in successful integration.  Paradoxically, most expats I know actively seek to insulate themselves as much as possible from a high level of immersion.  Why would foreigners here for the most authentic 'German experience' not fully immerse themselves in Germany?

The answer lies in the deep-seated sense of order and precision in German culture.  For all its progressive politics Germany is a traditional country with tradition values.  Just because Germans are open minded about public drinking, prostitution and gay marriage doesn't mean they will allow you to drop your child off half an hour late to Kita.  Just because Germany says it wants to combat sexism in the workplace doesn't mean German companies are going to start hiring women as their CEOs.  This is what I like to refer to as a politically progressive but socially restrictive cultural norms.  Germany does much better on paper than in real life. 

Not following the unspoken social norms results a lot of covert or outright social aggression.  Because foreigners will naturally posses different cultural norms a high level of integration can result in experiencing a lot of 'correction'.  Correction might not seem malicious in nature but it is in fact one or more individuals trying to impose their norms or preference on another.  Since social correction is abrasive and intrusive many foreigners will seek out more international areas of German society where individuals are likely to be more open minded and understanding.  Many foreigners will need a certain amount of insulation from too much correction.  They might find solace in their spouse, friendships with other foreigners, or by exclusively speaking thair native language.  Successful integration rests on a balance of being immersed without being overwhelmed.   If foreigners can maintain this balance then they will find they can ease themselves into the more open areas of German society.  Not having this balance is akin to being a seal thrown into a tank of hungry sharks. 

Lately I've had a totally backlash against all things German.  This is probably a reaction to the high level of immersion and low level of insulation I am currently experiencing.   Criticism comes from every area of my life and the cracks are starting to show.  I'm so sick and tired of being told what to do, how to do it, being reprimanded, reminded, challenged.  I'm tired of arguing with sales reps and receptionists.  I'm tired of people telling me what I should and shouldn't post on Facebook, tired of being talked about, of having my every word picked apart.  I'm tired of people trying to out-parent me.  I'm tired having to be precise and exact in what I say.  I'm tired of being told not to talk about things, to keep this and that a secret.  I'm tired of pointless drama.  I'm tired of everyone taking themselves so mothertrucking serious.  I want everyone to mind their own business and leave me alone for a while. 

Which we all know is not going to happen.

This weekend will be dedicated to finding ways to insulate myself against the constant (seriously, seriously constant) barrage of criticism and correction before it drives me batty.


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