I sat alone on a bright blue gymnastics mat with my knees tucked up into my chest. Then I thought I might look just as childlike as the toddlers playing on the indoor playground next to me, so I stretched out my short legs in an attempt to look as cool as an adult mom can at a two-year-old’s birthday party and took a sip of watered down juice from my red race car paper cup.
I felt awkward.
My eyes scanned the room in search of someone who might be interested in talking to a petite, smiley, fun-loving American expat such as myself, but everyone looked to be content with their social situation. Defeated and thoroughly bored, I turned my gaze to my son in time to witness him face plant into a cushioned wall, stumble his way back onto his feet, and run off laughing dizzily toward the slide. I’m not bored, I lied to myself as I shifted my weight to a different hip for the tenth time in five minutes. Besides, Elliott will play with me. I’ll bet he’ll cheer if I ask.
I called out to Elliott as he darted past. He said playgrounds weren’t for mamas. I said his point was fair. I shifted my weight and took another sip from my red race car paper cup. It seemed I was to spend the entirety of the birthday party in the company of me, myself, and I.
Expats and What Do I Do With You Syndrome
Expats often encounter what I call What Do I Do With You Syndrome. It’s the panicked, deer in the headlights look a local may give you, usually unrealized, when you, the expat, begin speaking. Symptoms of this syndrome include:
- Wide eyes
- Raised eyebrows
- A slight cringe or pursing of the lips
- Hurried or abrupt ending of conversation
- Avoidance of eye, verbal, and physical contact
- A sudden interest in something somewhere else
I see this face all the time, and it’s what happened to me repeatedly at a child’s birthday party. We entered the room, I introduced my son and myself then – BAM. The syndrome infected every parent in the room. It was as if the host clapped her hands and announced, “Attention, everyone! THE AMERICAN IS HERE. I REPEAT: THE AMERICAN IS HERE AND SHE MAY NOT UNDERSTAND A WORD WE SAY.”
Usually, I try to dissuade locals from giving into the syndrome by saying something like, “It’s okay! I may not speak perfect German, but I promise I can understand most everything you say.” I believe my plea is pretty convincing, but for some locals, I might as well be saying, “It’s okay! I may not be totally over the flu, but I promise my doctor said I’m no longer contagious.” It doesn’t matter I can understand 98% of what they say or respond back in decent German or that I’ve lived in Vienna for five years. Like not wanting to risk catching the flu, some don’t want to risk the possibility of losing their social comfort zone.
In the end, Elliott had a blast and I spent the majority of my alone time observing a mom attempt to make animal balloons for a load of hyper kids while still clutching her vape pen. Personally, I didn’t think the vaporizer necessarily added any flare to the balloon giraffes, but who am I to know these things. The host made sure I was well caffeinated and full of cake and sandwiches. She may not have known what to do with me, but she did know to feed me which is all I need, really.
Surviving Social Scenes as an Expat
Truly, I hold no grudge toward any local who comes down with a case of this particular social illness. Language, though intriguing, beautiful, and mysterious, is also completely terrifying. If you speak one language and I speak another, there is no guarantee we’ll be able to communicate save through wild hand gestures and awkward caveman grunts. I get it. But if you’re me at this birthday party and know you can communicate with and understand those around you yet no one else believes you can or is unsure of their own communication abilities, the time drags by, you feel lonely, and you find yourself wishing someone would call you with a fake emergency so you can book it out of there.
Luckily, I had a lot of time on my hands at this shindig and have watched the onset of What Do I Do With You Syndrome occur enough times to have collected eight tips for my fellow expats who will almost certainly experience this situation at least once in your time abroad.
Eight Tips for Survival:
- Shrug it off – As I said at the beginning, most locals react this way completely unaware of their facial and body language. Nine times out of ten, they’re merely trying to avoid embarrassment for both your sakes and mean you no ill will. Assume the best of them, give yourself a fist bump for knowing that had they kept the conversation going you would’ve nailed it, and look forward to a time when you come across a local who’s equally willing to talk – faux pas and all.
- Stay present – For some, the feeling of being left out might bring back unfortunate memories of teenage angst and sitting alone at the lunch table. Don’t go there. It’s not necessary, and it’s not the same.
- Move around – Say you’re in a situation like mine and are trapped in a room for a lengthy period of time with a group of people who don’t know what to do with you. Now what? I found the best thing to do is move around within your surroundings.
- Sit on the floor with your legs crossed.
- Lean on a wall near the kitchen.
- Lounge on a bench near the food.
- Switch up which leg should be bent at the knee as you recline on a nearby mat or sofa.
- Spend five minutes with your chin in your left hand, then five minutes with it in your right.
- If you feel yourself begin to nod off, it’s time to find a new location or stand idly in the bathroom for three minutes.
Work on a To-do List – With all this time on your hands, mentally create your meal plan for the week or figure out what you finally need to sell on Used Stuff for Sale in Vienna.
- Write a blog post, email, or presentation – It’s difficult to find time during the day to sit down and bust out a bunch of words for a much-needed post or a work thing you’ve been avoiding. Lucky for you, you don’t have to avoid it anymore! Pull up a chair and a bowl of chips and write those words as you stare off in no particular direction.
- Play a game – Create background stories for the people in the room. Where do they work? Why did he choose that tattoo? Why does she know how to make balloon animals, and how many will she pop with her vape pen by the end of the party?
- Fake it till you make it – Whether your encounter with the syndrome was brief or lengthy, it’s safe to say it wasn’t fun, understandably so. And while your face would prefer to droop to the floor to throw its own personal tantrum in protest, it’s been my experience that you’ll better survive the encounter if you keep trucking along with at least a partial smile on your face.
- Observe, observe, observe! – Watch the other locals to see what they do in any given situation. Do they say goodbye to each individual before they head out or simply wave and leave? Do they serve themselves coffee while they talk or wait for the host to offer it? Do they look at their phones throughout the event or leave them out of sight? It’s challenging enough to be the one guest with whom no one knows what do, but you’ll make it worse for yourself if you’re that one person who breaks all of the social rules of the culture because you weren’t paying attention.
A Lesson Learned
What Do I Do With You Syndrome is around but it’s not everywhere. There are indeed locals who won’t shy away from the newness you bring to the table. And if there’s one lesson to take away from the whole experience, it’s that when it’s your turn to be the local, you’ll know how to respond because you remember what it felt like to be the new guy; the expat who knew enough to get by, is looking for acceptance, and wants to give the language and culture a shot.