So when I first started writing this blog, I told you that I would write about the good, the bad and the ugly plus the truly magical. I believe my posts have covered all those ideas…well except for maybe the ugly… I think I initially shied away from “ugly” posts because I wanted my blog to be a good experience. I did not want readers and fellow bloggers to come to my site expecting a rant each and every visit.
Or maybe I just wanted to hook you in first with delicious treats before I fed you poison…tee-hee… Ummm…just kidding 🙂 I think the real reason is that I am generally an optimistic individual. However, I did promise I would talk about not so pleasant events as an expat. My professor dubbed these insights as culture shock. Those moments when you realize that no matter how much you love a culture – you still view some things as an outsider. So today we will start with the concept I dubbed “smoke and mirrors.”
The term “smoke and mirrors” means something is not really as it appears to be. According to Dictionary.com, it is “something that distorts or blurs facts like a magic trick”. On the other hand, Merriam-Webster.com describes it as “something intended to disguise or draw attention away from an often embarrassing or unpleasant issue”. I think both definitions work even though the first definition is more suited for the artful deception of a magician. It still embodies my concept of intentional illusion.
In Mexico, I found people often put up “smoke and mirrors” to hide something or avoid an unpleasant conversation. For example, when I would throw a party, I would invite all my friends and co-workers. The expats would usually be forthright with their rsvp’s regardless of whether it was yes, no or maybe. However, my Mexican friends always said yes even when they meant no. At first I was really insulted. I thought maybe they weren’t really my friends.
Eventually, someone explained to me that Mexicans have an innate desire to please. Since they are so agreeable, they will always say what you want to hear. It is amazing how a simple word like yes can be so entrenched in one’s culture. Apparently, Mexicans view the word no as uncooperative and even insulting. They will avoid saying no by saying yes. I was flabbergasted. Growing up in the States and being Croatian, that small reply seemed like a lie to me. Not a huge lie, more like a fib, but a lie nontheless.
However, it doesn’t end there. When I first fell in love with Mexico during my study abroad, I began interviewing with Starbucks Mexico. I had my first interview in Mexico City and my second in Cancun. They loved me and told me that I was extremely qualified. They wanted me to start working in the fall of 2010. So, of course, I packed my whole life away and moved to Mexico. I waited and waited while they constantly pushed the start date out. Until, finally one day, I called and found out the woman who was supposed to hire me had quit. And no one else knew what I was talking about.
Did I mention I had just moved to another country?! I felt totally lied to and ripped off. I could not understand why someone, anyone, could not have sent me an email, text or carrier pigeon and told me they had no plans to hire me?! I was completely baffled. Eventually, I did find a job I enjoyed which led me to meet really fantastic people. It set me on my current life path. But I still can’t help question the “smoke and mirrors” routine. In the end, I ended up being hurt more than if I had just received a simple no from the beginning.
My final example involves my first boyfriend in Mexico. I met this really great man or someone who I thought was a really great man. I thought we were in love. We planned a whole future together.! But sometimes, things just didn’t add up. The red flags had become neon flashing signs. Eventually, I figured out he had a another girlfriend. I was the other woman..??!! What incensed me most were not his lies. I actually understood why he was lying. He was trying to protect himself so that he could have us both.
I was more upset with his friends, who I thought were also my friends, because they participated in the lie. With me and with her. Did I mention I was gobsmacked?! When I asked our friends why they just didn’t tell me, their replies were always the same – “But Rosa, we didn’t want to hurt your feelings.” Huh?! All I could do was shrug my shoulders because it made absolutely no sense to me. I felt betrayed. Of course I got over that too and met a really great guy who was a really great guy. But the situation still left me scarred and I was never really close to that group of friends again. Even all my schooling had not prepared me for the reality of this culture shock..!
When I was getting my master’s degree, I took an intercultural communications class. We studied Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions among countries. It was fascinating. There are six components listed in the graph above. But one of them embodies my concept of “smoke and mirrors”. It addresses whether a country is individualistic or collectivistic. The U.S. scored a 91 on this dimension. In other words, Americans tend to be more interested in themselves and their family then the proverbial village as a whole. They are also more adept at direct exchanges between each other and strangers. Note the word ‘direct’ – yes, no, maybe.
Mexico, on the other hand, scored a 30 on this component which makes them a collectivistic society. They are group oriented rather than individualistic. Mexicans have close relationships with family, extended family and extended relationships. They would rather maintain harmony and peace in the group for the greater good. Also, loyalty is paramount in their society even if one of their friends is cheating on another friend as I found out firsthand.
Unfortunately, even with all of my schooling on intercultural communications and cultural dimensions, the reality is far different. Sometimes you experience the culture shock immediately like getting off a plane in Saudia Arabia for example. But other times, it slowly creeps up and when you least expect it, you realize I really am in a different country. It’s kinda like getting over the honeymoon phase of a relationship. You see each other warts and all and you have to decide to stay or to go. I have to admit as much as this concept irritates me and believe me it does. I am a very direct person. I have learned to live around it and expect it. But it wasn’t easy. I have the scars to prove it.