Does Embracing Local Customs Help Immigrants Feel at Home?

by Ljiljana Radenović at Psyche: On 28 August 1999, I landed in Toronto, Canada, from Belgrade and the war-torn Yugoslavia. I came for graduate studies in philosophy but was eager to stay for good. I struggled to adjust to a new country; I understood English well but could not speak it fluently. The realisation that I suddenly felt like only half of my former self haunted me for months and gradually dissipated only as I learned to adapt to a new way of life in which, unlike at home in Belgrade, it was unacceptable to drop by someone’s house unannounced, indoor smoking was a big no-no, and carrying coffee to a workplace in a plastic cup was the norm. Within the first year or so, I learned to navigate the subway system, that ‘sorry’ is a must even when somebody else bumps into you, and that a handshake is acceptable only the first time you meet somebody (insisting after that is just weird). As I was adjusting to my life in Toronto, I assimilated the acceptable norms of my new home, and the sensation of being a complete outsider gradually subsided.

Stories of immigration illustrate to what extent our communities, their norms, values, customs, and even very simple things like greetings and small talk shape the way we feel on an everyday basis – and how suddenly we lose the sense of security and belonging once we uproot and move to the foreign land. The question that interests me, however, is: does adhering to the ‘rules’ of a new home, ie embracing a new way of life, itself produce that much-needed sense of belonging? Does adopting the manners and habits of the local place itself suffice to fulfil this need?

Some psychological studies seem to suggest that this is the case; that our emotional regulation is far better when we adopt automatically and use unconsciously the values of our society. This seems to suggest that embracing the norms of the new place as our own should help us feel that we belong wherever we move, provided we adapt effectively. But I don’t think the answer is a straightforward ‘yes’, in fact the answer is more paradoxical. Whether we ever feel that we belong hinges on the nature of the norms prevalent in the place we live. So, while adapting well to a new culture may help us regulate emotions and feel better in our new home, sometimes such adaptation fails our need to belong simply because the norms we adjust to are such that they prevent us from sharing emotions with others – which is essential for the sense of belonging.

On the surface level, when we become competent practitioners of one particular culture, we can predict what other people will do and say in a particular situation and what they, in turn, expect us to do and say. But to truly adapt, human beings need to be able to do more than predict the behaviour of others. Adult immigrants yearn to be accepted; they want to belong. But to do that they need to embrace the cultural, moral and social novelties of their adoptive homeland as their own. Psychologists have shown that when immigrants incorporate the values and customs of a new home as their own this makes, on an everyday basis, their emotional and social regulation easier. Unconscious self-regulation is far less costly in terms of energy and effort than self-regulation via cognitive and conscious psychological mechanisms. For instance, if we believe it is acceptable for a woman to become a CEO of a company, when we see it happening, we will not feel negative emotions. But if we believe this is not the place for a woman (and we live in a society that largely accepts it), we will use extra energy to hide the negative emotion of disapproval we feel. Immigrants who immerse in the new culture so that they move beyond old (unacceptable) beliefs tend to report a heightened sense of wellbeing. Additionally, for the feeling of belonging one must also make connections with other people that go beyond superficial encounters.

But what happens when people take on the norms of their adoptive homeland but do not develop a sense of belonging? Can there be such cases, and what kind of insights do they offer regarding our need for belonging and the specific cultural norms at play? In other words, are there societal norms specific to particular societies that could diminish the human need to belong?

More here.

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