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Integration/the Netherlands/Europe

Strange medicine, social talk, clear borders and attitudes towards death: What surprises emigrants in Western Europe


Emigration, especially forced emigration, is an enormous stress. People find themselves in a new country completely unprepared and confused. Their culture and way of life is different from what they are used to. It is very important to know the "rules of the game" in each country in order to make life and adaptation easier.

This is the first text in the "Their Manners" column, where journalists living in different countries will compile a kind of cultural guide bringing together the local rules. Let's look at what features of life in European countries differ most from the usual routine in the post-Soviet countries.

Of course, it is impossible to reduce all European countries to a common denominator, because each of them has its own traditions and temperament. For example, the northern countries are more rational and rule-oriented, while the southern ones are more emotional and less regimented. Nevertheless, there are some similarities.

1. socialising

Europeans love small talk. They will ask questions and gladly answer yours. You'll hear interesting stories about distant relatives, discuss the weather and be able to sympathize with whatever misfortune has befallen them. There's just one thing: small talk is not a conversation between cronies but a mutual stroking.

In other words, everyone should feel comfortable in the conversation. It is considered bad form to argue or complain. Long monologues, where you do not let the other person say a word, are also condemned.

Often, Russian-speaking emigrants take participatory questions as an invitation to tell their life story and start a long story about the reasons for emigrating, Russian politics and other things that concern them.

They do not meet with enthusiastic and then talk on forums about how cold Europeans are and how difficult it is to make friends with them. But in fact, there is a communication error: the European does not understand how to behave with someone who does not know the elementary rules of small talk, and becomes alienated.

It often seems that when the Europeans nod and smile, it automatically means they agree with all the points made. But in reality, the European is showing: "I hear you and understand your feelings. I may have a different opinion, but yours also has a right to exist. It is respecting personal boundaries, which is very important.

Mastering the art of small talk is not difficult: just show genuine interest in the person you are talking to, remember to give the floor to everyone involved, and avoid taboo topics such as wages, politics (not everywhere) and religion.

2. Diversity and acceptance

European tolerance is based on accepting that everyone is different - and therein lies the value. Europeans accept you in all clothes, all weights and all sexual orientations as long as it concerns consensual adult interaction.

In countries of the former union, you are more likely (but certainly not always) to find a culture of judgement and self-assertion at the expense of others. The approach is: "I know what is right. If you are not like me, you are wrong. I have to judge you first so you don't have time to judge me" often rules the ball on social media. You can see this format of conversation in any Russian-language group on Facebook.

Europeans hold different beliefs: "Everyone has their own 'right'. As long as your 'right' doesn't bother me, you're fine. We are different, we have something to learn from each other".

Respect for the differences of others has created not only the well-known European tolerance but also a comfortable inclusive world for people with physical or mental disabilities.       

3. Driving culture

The general friendliness of Europeans also extends to driving. You don't flash your hazard lights but if you're passed oncoming traffic it's ok to smile and raise your hand in thanks. It's also normal to swap to the left if you see a car on the right hesitating to change lanes.

Keep in mind that in European cities there are a lot of surveillance cameras, so driving in a "go-fast" style can cost you a pretty penny: the fines for speeding in Europe are pretty high.

By the way, it is the culture of driving that differs greatly from North to South: where a Swede will smile politely looking at his busted bumper, an Italian will give you a colourful lesson in his native language.

4. Behaviour on the street

It's not customary to stare at someone on the street - it's considered rude (although the Dutch might argue with you, especially if it's a small village). If you look into someone's eyes, give the person a smile to smooth over any embarrassment. If you meet the eyes of a passerby, it is a good idea not only to smile but also to say hello.

By the way, many of us have been taught not to smile at strangers in the street - and this is a serious complaint from Europeans to Russians. They often perceive our customary "poker face" as outright rudeness.

If you go to an institution, such as the town hall or a hospital, you also have to say hello to those waiting in line. In hotels it is customary to say hello in the lift, for example.

In many European countries it is normal to walk up and ask to pet a dog or say hello yo a child you like. Sometimes a baby can be patted on the head without warning. This is not an invasion of your privacy but a local tradition, but you can always ask the person to stop if you feel uncomfortable - firmly but politely.

5. European medicine

Faced with European health insurance, the Russian-speaking expat often goes into a stupor, which is invariably replaced by indignation and anger. How does this strange thing work?

Insurance medicine does not have the luxury of treating every sneeze. Not even a Band-Aid will be prescribed preventatively here. You have to present an actual illness to the doctor in order to get medication.

Doctors believe that sooner or later the disease will manifest itself - and that is when it should be treated, and unnecessary gestures only confuse the clinical picture. Do you have a headache? Can you walk? So go home, if it doesn't go away, come back in a week, maybe some other symptom will have appeared by then.

Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages, this is a topic for a separate material (which we are already preparing). But here's what's important to understand in a specific situation: don't be brave at the family doctor's office. Don't say you're fine, don't hide your symptoms.

If you want to get medical help, don't play the tough-as-nails soldier. It is only in the movies, the doctor looks into the patient's eyes and determines by the colour of the pupil that the patient is lying to him. In real life, you will be congratulated on feeling great and sent home, even if you are obviously walking upside down.

The adult-adult approach also applies to medicine: an adult would not lie to a doctor and would not hesitate to ask for help in a difficult situation. If you yourself say that everything is fine, the doctor has no reason not to believe you.

6. Sex and other physiology

If you're looking for an easy conversation with a European, you've found it. Europeans love jokes about sex and physiology. And not just jokes. A total stranger might ask you where the bathroom is, because he or she has to pee so badly and was almost driven crazy by the sensation on the train. While you are pondering why you need this important information, he will already be back and, without the slightest embarrassment, will start a business meeting.

Such details are not considered intimate or even embarrassing in Europe.

It is as natural as possible to talk about your physiological needs.

It is not the only topic of conversation, but telling colleagues how much he had a stomach ache yesterday and describing the details can be done by any employee at any time - and you should be prepared for that.

Sex in friendly company can be both the subject of jokes and the cause of lively discussion. It is possible that at some point you will find out the sexual preferences of all your European acquaintances and will also be forced to share your own - and none of this will bring you one step closer to each other. That's because sex here is not a mystery but a normal part of life, just like going to work or walking the dog. And if your colleague had a great weekend kinky-party, there's a good chance you'll find out about it at lunch on Monday.

7. Empathy and death

Europeans are not callous people. They are willing to sympathise with your failure or loss. But European sympathy has its limits. It also has to do with the adult-adult position.

An adult doesn't need a parent to feel sorry for them. An adult can deal with his or her own emotions. Yes, they can and should be supported and shown that they are not alone - but that's all. Further, the emotional breakdown drags on, they will advise a psychotherapist they know or send him to a family doctor.

A funeral in Europe is also a moderately sad event. After all, here from childhood you are taught that death is part of life. So don't be surprised if the widow finds the strength to smile at the guests and the children play cheerfully in the living room. It happens.

8. Help and support

It is common in Europe to help. In fact, the term 'inclusion' is very popular here. But help looks different from what you and I are used to.

If you are standing in the middle of the street with your mobile phone and trying to figure out from a map where you should go next, a local person will probably come up to you and ask if you are lost and if you need help. If you say yes, he or she will explain the route in great detail and possibly guide you to your destination.

If your view in the car park is blocked and you are unsure how to steer onto the road, you are likely to be approached by an uncle who will gesture your way and wave goodbye.

If you sit on a flowerbed, lean against a pole and close your eyes, you are likely to be approached by several passers-by in ten minutes to check that you are OK.

If your scooter or bike has fallen over, it is more likely that someone will come to your aid to check that you are not seriously injured and that you do not need an ambulance.

However, if you are standing by the side of the road with a car breakdown, no-one will come to your assistance. Every European has a membership of some kind of roadside assistance club - and they are sure you have one. That's why nobody will even think of pulling over to the side of the road or causing any additional traffic problems.

If you are carrying heavy bags, it is unlikely that you will be offered help or given up your seat.

You are expected to be aware of your own physical abilities and not to create an uncomfortable environment for yourself. So even if you cannot be seen behind your bags, by default it is still assumed that it is your choice and you are coping on your own.

If you find yourself in a difficult life situation and need financial help, you are likely to be advised of options where you can go to solve the problem. There are also many people in Europe who are willing and able to help more than is customary. They are called volunteers and you will find them everywhere - in animal shelters, hospitals and expat training centres.

It is perfectly normal for the average European to volunteer from time to time outside of work.

If you need help, you can always find an outreach centre in your area - and get, for example, a free language lesson or competent financial advice.

9. Conflict behaviour

Children are taught from a very early age in primary school, which in Europe often starts at the age of 4, that fighting is forbidden. All conflicts must be solved through the teacher. This pattern of behaviour remains for life.

Of course, there are exceptions. Of course if you are attacked and your health or life is at stake, you have the right to defend yourself. But in general, the traditional "hit first" in the former CIS countries can get you and your child into a lot of trouble.

In Europe, conflicts are usually resolved through the police, a lawyer or a solicitor.

If you think your opponent is breaking the law, you smile politely and then go to the police and make a statement: "My neighbour is drilling at three in the morning. I have spoken to him several times, but to no avail. Please sort it out" - and you put your problems on the shoulders of the authorities.

In Europe there is also a legal insurance - just in case of war with your neighbours or the offended owner of the car you scratched. And many countries also have personal liability insurance, especially popular with parents with children. As a result, conflicts over property damage and disputes over land boundaries are reduced to almost zero.

Speaking of conflicts, we should not forget one of the worst sins in Europe - discrimination.

The habit of crossing over the identity, gender and nationality of the person being spoken to can easily lead its owner to the police for an explanation, or even a fine.

If someone makes such remarks about you, you can always mention "discrimination by nationality/gender/language" and watch as your conversation partner turns pale, apologises confusedly and loses any interest in continuing the conversation.

In the next article, our author Anna Rosch will elaborate on the best practices of life in France (spoiler: it's OK to eat lunch for two hours at a time).

By Irina Iakovleva