Ever lost your voice? I’m sitting here right now completely mute as I wait for mine to return – I’m more than a bit annoyed as I make my living from talking (and listening), I have lots of calls to make, I can’t phone a friend and have a good moan (apart from to give a little heavy breathing if that’s your thing), time is pressing on and I feel like my hands are tied, helpless. Oh ‘poor me’!
I’m certain most people in the expat community can relate to this – echoed by that loss of voice that often happens when we move to a new country. This is a bit embarrassing but I remember numerous times in Germany and France, rocking in a corner of my house, tears streaming down my face from frustration because I’d just got off the phone (again) from someone who had once more misunderstood me/slammed the phone down because they didn’t like my accent/fined me money for not doing something I didn’t know I had to do and didn’t have the bureaucratic vocabulary required to sort it out. It pushed just about every button I had relating to my self-worth, self-perception, my ability and my importance as a human being.
What happens when we lose our voice?
I’m going out on a limb here but I would estimate that a huge amount of unhappiness experienced whilst abroad stems from our inability to represent ourselves in verbal communication in a way which is effective and also reflective of how we truly perceive ourselves. It is this lack of congruence between what we want to say, the impact we want to have and what we can actually achieve which is the slow torture for many an expat, and one of the main reasons we retreat to same-country expat social groups rather than integrate into the local community or visit their doctor for anti-depressants. Or simply go home.
Isn’t it just a case of learning the language?
I met a very intelligent English female doctor in the South of France who was a fluent French speaker but refused to speak in French because ‘she was not herself’ when she spoke in French – her reasoning being that she found French made her feel diminutive and passive which was in total contrast to how she saw her true self – a strong, assertive woman. This sentiment which was echoed in Paris last year as a group of French feminists demonstrated outside L’Académie Française (the institution responsible in France for maintaining standards in the French language). My own French ‘personality’ sometimes makes too many bad jokes and speaks in an octave higher than she normally does (whose voice is THAT? I often think to myself). It is so easy to take on a persona when one learns a foreign language due to ignorance or wanting to be liked/fit in with cultural norms. Even if you learn the language to a very high level – that language is often affected by the culture in which it is created which can jar up against one’s personal preferences and values (it’s quite normal to experience foreign languages as too ‘fluffy’ too ‘direct’ too ‘rude’ etc) hardly the true self-expression we are hoping for.
So what’s the answer?
The answer is different for everyone, but here are my recommendations on creating a path for yourself (you might want to ask the help of a trusted friend or coach to help you with this):
- Explore what communication truly means to you – is it a case of ‘a to b’, simple exchange of information? Are you looking for self-expression? Are you looking for connection? An outlet for your intelligence? Recognition, debate or creation? What outcomes do you want to achieve? What’s the best-case scenario? What’s acceptable and what’s non-negotiable?
- Brainstorm loads of ideas about how you can create what you want (tip on practical things: do it yourself, get someone else to do it, delay it or ignore it).
- Pick the top three things on the list (the ones that get you really excited) and DO them – give them time scales and a consequence to yourself for not doing them (or a prize for achieving them!). Get your friend or coach to bear witness and hold you accountable to yourself.
Good luck, and remember – you’re doing a great job so be kind to yourself – do not go for perfection– this is all just part of the wonderful expat journey!
To book a free 40 minute session with me to work on finding your voice, you can either email me on firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone +44 (0)202 7193 7251 or Skype me on amandawilby.
Please leave your comments and stories here – I’d love to hear from you!