In August and September, work sent me one of their headquarters officers in Belgium for training on the product we support as part of an effort to foster more collaboration between the Support teams in Europe and the US. I was there for two weeks, with a “gap weekend” in Paris visiting a dear friend teaching there. It was my first time out of the country, and I had just enough time there to get a small taste of how life was different there and gain a few lessons about how I’m living here, day to day. Basically, spending a couple of weeks working in Europe taught me a lot about the pace of life here, how we relate to people, and how simplicity really can be a better way of life. Here are five broad lessons I’ve brought back with me from Belgium and France.
Culture shock is real.
If you’ve never experienced a culture different from your own, it’s not something you can ever be prepared for — especially if you’re spending a significant amount of time in said culture. There were so many things, both big and small, that shook me out of my comfort zone constantly. Belgium is a country with three distinct cultures and languages — French, German, Dutch — and they’re used to speaking multiple languages to get by. For someone like me who only speaks English on a regular basis, that lingual fluidity was much more difficult. The cuisine was different, of course; Italian dishes, beef and potatoes were the order of the day with very little seasoning. Mealtimes were a social event, where the expectation was that significant time would be carved out to eat and speak at leisure. Even the small interactions were different. People were less open but more friendly, stores were a lot smaller and more personal, coffee culture is way more geared towards espresso, and the volume of life is much quieter — even in Paris.
There are so many things we take for granted as universal to the human experience when it really isn’t. Beyond cultivating different personalities, cultures can also work from pretty different foundations about life’s purpose or an individual’s responsibility to society. And those foundations can sit beneath structures that are similar on the face, but baffling to navigate through. I know I’m not a worldly rabbit, but I try hard to recognize and accept those differences when I come across them. Even still, two weeks of that kind of discomfort was much more exhausting than I had anticipated.
Discomfort is a good thing.
The two weeks I spent in Belgium and Paris were almost constantly uncomfortable. Right up front I fought through jet lag, and after that was the harder, steadier work of navigating culture shock. There was the more familiar discomfort of building relationships with a small circle of coworkers who came over with me. There was penetrating a very different office culture and learning a complicated piece of software on top of that. There weren’t a lot of familiar comforts to be found; everything was new and required active engagement.
That wasn’t a bad thing, though. After making peace with the reality of the situation, I learned that constant engagement could be fulfilling and fruitful all on its own. That discomfort meant I was being tested, and learning how to move forward through that taught me a large amount in a relatively short time. Rest is important, of course; so is taking time to sink into comfort. But I think we’ve prized comfort far too much. Difficult things will cause discomfort, because building the skills we need to do them demands a lot of effort. We have to gauge whether or not this discomfort will lead to empowering us later, and not all hard situations are worth pushing through. But I think we’re too afraid of being uncomfortable in general. We treat it as an enemy instead of a sign that we’re doing something that changes us, makes us better.
Understanding people is hard work, but totally worth it.
The trainer in Belgium was a fairly difficult man to get along with, and it made training a lot more difficult. Beyond the culture and corporate clash, there was the fact that he didn’t have a personality well-suited to being in a room full of people all day explaining things and answering questions from a wide variety of students with different learning speeds and methods. After six or seven hours of this, we were set free on the city and had to muddle our way through conversations in English, Dutch and French. The whole time, I looked for non-verbal cues that might give me insight into conversational tone that might not be obvious from language alone.
In so many situations, it’s not just important to know what someone is saying — it’s also important to know what they *mean*. That means active listening, paying attention to not just the words but the context in which they’re being said, all the non-verbal cues that accompany them, the personal and interpersonal foundation the conversation is building on. Communication is not just the words we use, but the intent behind them and the skill of expressing that intent consciously. While sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, it’s also important to ask and accept why someone is saying something to us in the manner they’re saying it. Then, we have a better chance of knowing the best way to respond.
Slowing down and shutting up is something everyone should do on a regular basis.
I think the thing that impressed me most about my time in Europe is how the expectation is to slow down and focus on what you’re doing is baked into the culture. On our way back from the office, or while we were roaming around hunting for dinner, we’d see so many people sitting in front of shops and enjoying a beer in silent company. Television shows were so much more low-key in a way that’s difficult to describe, but things were designed to draw attention to what was happening — not diffuse it amongst a whole lot of sound bites. Focus and contemplation are encouraged; constant activity is not.
Taking a minute to shut up and think about the things we do and say is something that’s sorely needed. I think in American culture there’s a need to “join the conversation” regardless of whether it’s helpful or necessary to do so. We’re encouraged to be productive, to do great things, to admire those who are doing a billion things at once. While there are definite drawbacks to slowing down and focusing more intently on one thing, the benefits are obvious. We experience fewer things, but we experience them more deeply. That’s not a bad thing.
News should be designed to empower and inform, not agitate.
While I was in Belgium Hurricane Harvey was flooding Houston; not long after that, Hurricane Irma destroyed Barbuda and many other Caribbean islands; then, Hurricane Maria caused a tremendous humanitarian disaster in Puerto Rico. I watched a lot of news on these events in Belgium, Texas and California, and the difference between BBC and CNN is incredibly striking. The BBC is more of a traditional newscast, reporting on major events, giving facts (without immediate ‘analysis’ or ‘conjecture’), even offering insight on what could be done about the situation to help. Watching the news on CNN, the breathless commentary constantly running about the day’s events struck me as incredibly unnecessary and unhelpful.
I think it’s time for us to step back and think about what we want out of the news, as a society. So much of our news cycle these days is designed to agitate us, to make us afraid or angry, because we’ve said through our feedback that these are the stories that gain the most traction. Even nominally ‘neutral’ outlets are full of crawling chirons underneath split screens or constantly-updated sidebars spitting shallow bits of information faster than we can properly absorb them. It doesn’t allow us to focus on what we find important; it just keeps throwing things at us to keep our distracted attention.
Being immersed in a slower culture that prizes focus and being present has helped a lot to recontextualize aspects of American culture that I think contribute to a lot of the fear and anger this country has been gripped by. One of our biggest problems, I think, is the constant fight and fragmentation of our attention; we’re bombarded by advertisements, calls to action, demands for focus or emotional investment almost all the time. I think we as Americans should discourage this kind of attentive pollution and treat our focus as a precious, limited resource. We pride ourselves on more of everything — bigger portions, more productivity, more wealth. But for the time being, I think less is more; eliminating distractions to focus on what’s most important is what I need.