Going to the doctor’s office is rarely a pleasant experience, but for foreigners in the Netherlands, it can feel like bracing yourself for battle. After the gauntlet of calling during set hours to make an appointment and gritting your teeth through the countless busy signals, if you eventually manage to see a doctor, you may very well be told to just take some paracetamol and wait it out. You limp out of the office feeling worse than you did in the first place, because now on top of being sick, you are angry and embarrassed because you feel like you are not being listened to or taken seriously.
As a member of an outgroup within a new culture, it is not uncommon to experience a situation as a conflict more quickly because you feel like you have to work twice as hard to be seen. But just because you are mad about it does not mean it is wrong – and the things that make you mad are not the same things that would annoy the Dutch people in the waiting room around you.
Professors Sabine Otten and Batja Mesquita have each been featured researchers at Studium Generale (in conjunction with City Central) lectures in Groningen in recent months, and their respective academic expertises focus on different forms of inclusion. Professor Otten’s field is intergroup relations and social integration, and professor Mesquita is a psychologist studying the role of emotions in social integration.
Both professors have also had some lived experience with their research topics, having spent much of their careers in foreign countries: Otten is German and has been working in Groningen for 16 years, and Mesquita, who is Dutch, taught in the United States for ten years, and has been in Belgium for the last decade.
“When I came to the Netherlands, it was pretty exceptional to have foreign staff”, professor Otten says. Documents were not always available in English and the university was less aware of the unique logistical challenges that incoming international employees face. But she knows that she has been privileged to be in an academic environment which has more of a mix of nationalities than many other sectors, and where she has always felt wanted.
Otten says that within the university, preaching about diversity has led some Dutch students to question whether they are actually welcome. In the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences where she teaches, Dutch students are in the minority. “They may feel less appreciated because they’re not diverse enough. But whatever you are makes you part of diversity. Diversity is just about people being different.”
For professor Mesquita, who currently works at the University of Leuven in Belgium, living and working in a different country meant developing an alter ego of sorts. “I have my American persona and my own persona”, she says. Whenever she would find herself giving her personal opinion on a topic where it may not really have been called for, she realised that it was her Dutch self doing the talking.
There is no emotion that you have that isn’t also culturally constructed
Mesquita coined the term emotional acculturation and studies the role of culture in emotions, and how emotions belong to a culture. Each individual’s emotions are formed by the society they grew up in and those feelings belong in a specific cultural context. “There is no emotion that you have that isn’t also culturally constructed”, she says. “It’s always the sum of experiences that you and your culture attach to a certain situation.”
If you move to a new country, that means that you may not feel like your feelings belong there. That is when emotional acculturation may occur, but there are predictors of how likely you are to become emotionally aligned with the native population: how old you were when you immigrated, what proportion of your life have you spent in the new culture and how much contact you have with the new culture. There can be something of an emotional half-life for people who became bicultural after a certain age: you may never be on exactly the same wavelength.
Mesquita says that countries that recognise themselves as immigrant cultures, such as the United States or Canada, are likelier to see bi-culturalism as a good thing. “In the literature, bi-culturalism is often found to be wholesome, but you don’t find that in a lot of the European research. You find that a lot of European research says that bi-culturalism puts you at risk”, she says. “People who want to be bi-cultural are the most vulnerable in a context where bi-culturalism is not valued. And I don’t think that in Western Europe it’s valued in the way that it is in the United States.”
Whether a country sees itself as a nation of immigrants or not plays a big role in the possibility of eventually being accepted for who you are versus having to alter your behaviour in order to meet that new society’s expectations. Otten says that integration implies that you deliberately change yourself to fit in, whereas inclusion is actually being embraced as your current self, regardless of whether you are a so-called model immigrant or just as unspectacular as the average Dutch person.
“Just wanting to fit in doesn’t mean that you actually fit in”
But even when people are born and raised in a country, having a migrant background can stand in the way of being truly accepted on every level. Professor Otten says that this is the integration paradox: the more effort a person puts into fitting into a society, the more likely they are to feel alienated if they are rejected in some way. And willingness to become part of a new culture or openness to its traditions does not equate to emotional acculturation, either. “Just wanting to fit in doesn’t mean that you actually fit”, Mesquita says.
Let’s go back to the doctor’s office. You tried to play by the rules, but you leave, no prescription in hand, feeling defeated and embarrassed. Sure, a little bit more understanding from the medical staff would not hurt, but just because you have a strong feeling about the interaction does not mean anyone did something wrong. “I think we need to teach people that emotions are reflections of how we perceive the reality according to our values”, Mesquita says. “It’s not the reality itself. And that is a really important difference.”
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