Life Lessons from Overseas / Thoughts / Travel

Life Lessons from Overseas: On Making Good First Impressions & Complaining Wisely…

Panda Hash Baptism
The Panda Hash version of a good first impression.  More from the Life Lessons from Overseas series here.  Apologies for the tardiness of this post and any typos, there’s a teething-induced sleep drought going on at Chez Hot Pot right now!

First impressions.  Your own and the ones other people have of you.

As much as I wish it weren’t true, sometimes first impressions actually matter.  They matter when you are starting a new job, entering a new neighborhood, moving to a new city, or doing all three at once.  They especially matter when you’re joining a new community overseas.

Why?  Because living in a small or even not-so-small expat community is a little like living in an alternative universe that combines the best and worst traits of small-town America, a sleep-away summer camp and a middle-school girl’s bathroom.

Only in the diplomatic or expat community will your spouse’s boss also be your next door neighbor.  Only in a diplomatic or expat community will the person who decides when your air conditioner gets fixed also be the husband or wife of the person who hosts your kid’s play group.

Yes, the impressions you make on other people and the ones they make on you matter a whole lot more when the people you live with, work with, and socialize with, now and at future posts, are all the exact same people.

Of course, no one is going to make an lasting judgements about you the minute you step off the plane after 26 hours of travel, when you are still in need of a complete stranger to point you to the bathroom in “your” new home at 3 in the morning.  If that were true, none of us would ever become friends.

Most of people you meet will be incredibly patient, empathetic and charitable people who will reserve judgement as long as they can; but even so, no one can reserve judgement forever.  At some point we all end up having to decide how we feel about one another; and those early days, weeks and months in a new place are a time when people will pay extra close attention to everything you say and do.

People will especially notice how a new person reacts to the people and places with which they themselves are already very well-acquainted.  Eventually, opinions on character, friendliness,and collegiality will be formed, solidified and shared, almost unconsciously, as people ask one another whether they’ve met the new person and what that person is like.    Our reputations always travel ahead of us, on the rims of wine glasses at happy hours and on the wings of the planes of our friends and acquaintances take as they leave Post and scatter around the world.

Which is why it matters that we think very carefully about the things we say, the way we say them and who we say them to, especially when we are new in town.

It’s totally normal and reasonable and probably healthy to move to a new place and make constant comparisons between it and “Other-Place-istan.” It’s ok to be upset with aspects of your housing, job, social situation and to want to make changes, but it’s important to “complain wisely” or avoid doing it at all — especially when you might not have perfect information or when you aren’t quite sure yet how all of the people you are socializing/living/working with are connected to one another.

You might think you have the worst possible apartment in the entire housing pool…until you visit the home of a colleague and suddenly feel grateful for how good you have it.  You might think that Mr. Smith is the person responsible for your miserable HR situation but actually it’s Mrs. Johnson…and she’s standing right next to your new best friend as you spill your guts at the coffee social.

I read a really wonderful blog post over at Email from the Embassy over a year ago which encapsuates this particular challenge even better than I can:

Everyone has a different response to the newness, and some people start right out by complaining. Why, people, why? One of my friends here has a self-imposed rule: don’t complain until you’ve been here for six months. Because you can’t know whom you’re offending when you complain about the school, or the house, or the store. And you don’t know how far your complaints will travel. And do you really want to be known for the next three years – or beyond – as the lady who whined about her fireplace? Answer: no. No, you do not. If you can’t put a positive spin on it, you need to tread carefully, because in a small community, in which you’re the newcomer, there’s no way of knowing how far your complaints – no matter how legitimate! – will spread, or how they’ll color people’s perceptions of you.

As someone who’s always been exceptionally good at sticking my foot in my mouth, these words ring so painfully true.

I look back now and realize how absolutely silly I was complaining about our first apartment in Chengdu.  Did complaining about it accomplish anything?  No, it just made me appear to others as a sort of high-maintenance newbie who didn’t know how good I had it.  Living at a small post where we all socialized together quite often, I think people eventually realized that I wasn’t a total debbie-downer but instead a first-tour spouse who didn’t quite feel comfortable yet with her new life.  In a bigger community though, in which people might meet once or twice and then not again for months or years, I doubt I would have been so lucky.   More likely, there would be a whole group of people now who would know nothing about me except that I once complained about our kitchen!

I sincerely hope no one reads this post and thinks they can never say a single negative thing to anyone ever.  That’s not true.  Some of the best, most hilarious conversations you’ll ever have will be about the terrible, no good, very bad experiences you have with your housing, your taxi ride, or some other facet of daily life.  The trick is how you talk about them and to whom.

You are always going to have something that is bothering you and it sure isn’t healthy to keep it all bottled up inside.  Complain, vent, gripe, bitch to your spouse, to your folks back home or to close people you can trust.  If you have a serious, legitimate issue, by all means take it through the appropriate channels.

But in every other social situation, err on the side of diplomacy.  If you are going to talk about the terrible maintenance situation in your bathroom, do it in a way that makes people laugh, that offends no one and that leaves people with a positive impression of you as someone who has a good attitude and can roll with the punches.  If the situation is just too aggravating, too emotional for you to be able to pull that off, then deflect questions and save the real story for a coffee date with a close friend or your people back home.

Of course, you all already know all of this, but this has been such a hard-won lesson for me that I couldn’t not include it in this series.

I’m still so far from a perfect adherent to the “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” adage, but I’m slowly getting better; and it’s amazing how much more easily I socialize when I don’t have to constantly be looking over my shoulder to see who might have overheard me.  It’s a wonderful warm fuzzy feeling when I hear someone repeating a nice comment I made about someone or something rather than relaying a grievance of mine around the room.  Apparently living overseas as part of a diplomatic community has actually made me a bit more…wait for it…diplomatic.  Who’d have thought right?

What have been your experiences with making first impressions?  How do you balance the urge to pass judgement with the desire to keep an open mind about someone?  Do you have any tips or words to live by when it comes to entering a new community for the first time?

Next week we’ll talk about interacting with people outside the expat/diplomatic community.  What are some of the best/worst/most educational experiences you’ve had?  What are the sorts of etiquette and social norms particular to your current country that you have learned to follow or even appreciate?