Can nationality be an indicator of compatibility?

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 24.08.2018

Recently, at dinner with my Luxembourgish fiancée and her family, I described a colleague who does a tour of the entire floor every morning at work, greeting everyone in four or five languages. Big smile, sunshiny manners, affable to the utmost. A bit over the top, even. At the end of the workday, she makes the rounds again to say goodbye.

“Belgian?” my sister-in-law asked. Surprised, I said yes—and everyone chortled into their Kachkéiseschmieren.

In strictly wide terms, it seems that a culture truly can engender certain qualities in its human output. Can we say that Belgium, by whatever fold of fate, produces people who are friendly, comical, and frank? That Americans (my people) are outgoing, optimistic, and cagey, and the French wry, perceptive, and sour? It will always be reductive, but so are some of the most enduring observations about life and society.

As the months and years go by as a foreigner, and as I gradually—oh, so gradually—get wiser with age, I’m forever fixated by how these big cultural shadows darken the people that have grown up under them. Your home culture (or cultures) is problematic by definition: whether you like your culture or not, embrace it or not, notice it or not, you engage with it simply by existing. Rebelling from it gives it just as much power over you as if you’d never considered it.

This idea first perplexed me during some formative years in my mid-twenties. Living in Britain and following several stand-up comics very closely, searching them for life advice as one might an older sibling, I learned that one of the most British things a British person could do was to complain loudly about Britain. The sentiment really struck home when an English comic pointed out that a newspaper had done a survey of the shittest towns in Britain, only to be overwhelmed with emails the next day from people livid that their own town hadn’t been included.

At the time, I had been naïvely fancying myself to be, somehow, slowly going British. After all, I had warmed to the country’s room-temperature beer and ridiculous accents, situated its celebrities and media outlets, and learned some of its more mundane slang. I defended these strays of culture as my adoptive own, growing even to revere them as informants of my evolving personality. But in fact, though I little knew it, nothing was betraying me as an American Midwesterner more than demonstratively worshipping what was around me. That’s what we do back in Michigan: you should hear my grandmother congratulate menu items before even ordering anything.

So, realising this, I started whinging about towns too. Sometimes it feels good to go native in this way, to ape local behaviour a little bit, stopping at the line before complete fakery. Doing so allows you to exist on grounds other than national identity (a topic that, while expansive and invigorating, still gets boring). But other times you worry that you cheapen your character with these inflections: perhaps, after all, you would make more sense to people by flashing your natural foreignness.

In Luxembourg, my home for three years now, the most active battlefield in this personality game is that of reservedness. Luxembourgers are very reserved, a fairly widespread assessment often touted proudly as part of the national character. (Indeed, when a British newspaper published a travel piece that called Luxembourgers even more reserved than the Brits, this was—I’m told—met with gentle nods of pleasure and quiet remarks of acquiescence in kitchens all around the country).

Now, very few Europeans would mistake Americans for a reserved people—I recently overheard one of my countryfolk, during a remarkable phone call to a restaurant, boldly say “noon, two people” in a French accent—and that leaves me cleaved as to how to exist here. I can chat merrily to strangers, safe in the assumption that once my Yankee roots are discovered all will make sense (and, hopefully, be forgiven). Or I can blend, blend, blend, gripping my empty glass at cocktail receptions so as to have something to occupy my hands with.

A counterargument here might be that personalities are not malleable, daytime efforts, but deeply coded features of the self. But in my expat context, there are certainly two ways about it. In most cases, my natural shyness gets enveloped into the local concept of reservedness, even though the two things are not quite the same; in other words, blend, blend, blend. Every now and then, however, like pulling a hamster out of my back pocket, I can (and indeed feel compelled to) produce the shiny, relaxed curiosity of my American compatriots. Mind you, doing so doesn’t always defeat the crushing awkwardnesses that inevitably pursue me, and which may come from that murkier, more foundational level of personality.

Anyway, these examples are meant to land on a conclusion that people are one part marked by their home culture, one part marked by their unavoidable nature, and one part marked by the efforts they make (or don’t) towards one of those parts. Where does that leave the question posed at the top of this essay? Well, if you’re willing to distil people down to the three parts just mentioned, then nationality can absolutely indicate compatibility.

As an example, let me come right out with it: the Europeans from Luxembourg and its surrounding regions who tend to be the least compatible with me are those who wish they lived in California. We don’t share a home culture, and they see themselves with (or attracted by) cool, positive vibes and a mode of life where you surf over all your insecurities in bright sunshine. Could they be simpletons? No, no, of course not—not all of them. But these are outgoing types from a reserved culture, my perfect opposite.

But Luxembourgers tend, on the whole, to be perfectly compatible with me. I spent my whole life on the hunt for something, not knowing what. Whatever it is, it definitely is not in America, and unquestionably exists in Luxembourg, where people are reserved and ironic, awkward and frank, highly aware of internationality—all things I want for myself and for my community. But there I go again, getting sweet on everything around me, once and always a Midwesterner.

Jeffrey Palms
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