Don’t Fake Accents and three other rules for keeping it real when abroad

back in my Europe-dwelling days on a three-day Paris trip

When I was in my teens I lived about an hour by train west of London.  My dad taught at a college that drew a lot of American college students, eager to “do Europe” for a year.   One of the most frustrating thing about some of these students was the accent that they would try to fake.  Nothing made the English roll their eyes more than the latest American attempt at copying their accent.  It was genuinely painful to listen to.

The irony of course, was that in this desperate attempt at generating street cred, the offending 19 year-old American was accomplishing just the opposite.  The locals would at best put up with or overlook the posturing.  When it got bad enough, the aspiring Hugh Grant actually took a social beating.

Sure, socially punishing those that fake their accent may have been a little harsh of the English.  But the root of the problem was deeper than just a question of accents – it had to do with the accent impostor’s lack of self-confidence.  More than anything, self-confidence and a belief in what you can bring to the table is important when you are abroad.  You’ve got to keep it real.

Be your “confident self” – you will be rewarded

If you present yourself confidently, as though you have “nothing to hide”, your unique qualities and foreign ways will come across as refreshing and interesting.  It pays to be different.  This is very different from being cocky.  Cockiness masks insecurity badly and most people can see right through it, especially when you are being cocky on their turf.  But a warm confidence speaks volumes.

Learn from but do not copy

A willingness to learn lies at the heart of any successful relocation experience.  Rather than coming with an expectation that you will teach others how things should be done, arriving in another country with a blank slate and a willingness to learn is so helpful to you and so appreciated by locals.  This does not mean that you copy locals as in the above example of inauthentic accent imitation.   Instead, this is all about learning from the good and letting it organically enrich your life and experience.  Have you relocated to a country that spends two hours on lunch every day?  Learn to appreciate this natural emphasis on life balance, natural rhythm and nurtured relationships and apply it to your life.  Are there tweaks that you can make so that your family and friends feel more appreciated and cared for when they are in your presence?

Be the “reasonable foreigner”

The opposite of the “ugly American” or Swede for that matter, is the “reasonable one”.  I am always impressed by those that arrive in a new country and context with a clear determination to build bridges.  There is so much that you could potentially disagree with and start judging when you travel.  RESIST THE TEMPTATION.  Instead, seek out the areas of common ground that you can build upon.  There is always a lot of good that can be celebrated about your host nation’s culture and ways.  Be the foreigner that seeks these good things out.  Make sure your hosts know that you appreciate them and their unique cultural qualities.  If you start by emphasizing common ground a near-magical thing happens – the locals around you start to think “she gets it” or “he’s adjusting so well” and they will be much more likely to want to invest time and effort in getting to know you and making you feel comfortable.

Travel and relocation can be some of the best adventures of life if you approach them with a gentle confidence.  Be real.  Be yourself.  This builds trust and goodwill – the currency of international success.



Bjorn Karlman


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