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Language Chameleon

Does your personality change skin when switching languages?

Text and Image: Evita Belegri

Μoving to the Netherlands from Greece, my mom advised me to ‘not only hang out with Greeks, find international friends!’ Confident in my English language skills, I did not expect the identity crisis I would experience; I was not the same person when I spoke in English than when I spoke in Greek. It felt as if I had developed a different, English-speaking personality. Was this another side of the ‘real me’ or just a language barrier tinting my ‘original’ Greek personality?

I did not know whether other non-native English speakers felt the same until one day the conversation came up. I was hanging out with an international group of friends in our building’s common room. There was loud music and people were chatting lively, passing around drinks and playing beer pong. I had just moved into the building, so my friend suggested that I, ‘get out of my comfort zone and meet people randomly’, when I made a comment on how introverted I felt when I spoke English, and that this is not the case when I am in Greece. With Greeks, I said, I feel comfortable to call them malaka right when I meet them, but with internationals I must test the waters first (Greek: malaka = jerk (μαλάκα), used in various contexts, usually a friendly one but it can also be hostile).

Finding People Who Feel The Same (or not!).

Some of my friends seemed confused with my statement, asking me to elaborate, but my

Brazilian friend strongly agreed: ‘I was talking to my friend about this! When I

am in Brazil, I am more rude, direct, and a party animal. Here I am more

formal, nice and introverted.’ She caressed her Italian boyfriend’s hair and said: ‘Before

he came to visit my home country, my mom said to me; “Are you ready for him to see

the ‘real you?” And it is true, I am so different when I am in The Netherlands.’

Her statement that she was ‘the real her’ when she interacted in her mother-tongue

surprised me. How did she form a year-and-a-half-long relationship with somebody that did not speak the language that made her feel like her ‘original’ self?

On a rainy Monday evening, I invited them to my room to hang out. They both showed up in their pink fuzzy pyjamas and I made them tea. Curious about what she said in the common room I asked them about it. Her boyfriend did not feel the personality change. As he expressed: ‘It is not the personality that changes but the instruments that I use to convey my message. Maybe it is because language is connected to memories: if you had some experiences in English, you associate this version of yourself with speaking English. I was forced to meet new people when I moved abroad, so my English-speaking personality is more outgoing. In Italy, I used to be shyer. However, when I switch to Italian, I do not become shy again.’ The discussion I had with them sparked a flame of curiosity and I decided to discuss it with as many people as I could.

Soon enough, a chance presented itself. During our class break, my Russian friend excitedly announced her engagement with her Danish fiance. We all happily congratulated her and encouraged her to spill the details. I asked her about having to speak in English in her relationship. As with my Italian friend, she also felt more extroverted in English. She did not feel a personality change while switching from Russian to English, but she did feel ‘a bit funnier.’ The same was true for my Surinamese friend who felt more comfortable using gestures and expressing himself in English rather than Dutch. I can vouch for him as indeed, when he told me this he was making gestures to explain his stance better. ‘I do feel more like the “real me” when I speak in English’ he added, touching both of his hands to his chest to express that his words came from his heart. Seems like a lot of people felt quite the opposite from me.

I attributed it to being more exposed to the English language, because both my Russian classmate and my Surinamese friends spoke English regularly before moving to the Netherlands. However, almost all the people I spoke with were fluent in English and lived abroad for more than one year. My Brazilian friend had also lived in the US in the past while her Italian boyfriend who did not feel a personality change moved to the Netherlands from Italy two years ago. Thus, I could not relate feeling less extroverted in English to exposure with the language. Ozanska-Ponikwia in 2011, through conducting an experiment discovered that feeling the ‘personality change’ is related to possessing certain personality traits rather than indeed those changes existing. More specifically, people who are more extraverted, agreeable, open with their emotions, socially aware, social and empathetic are more likely to notice differences in their behaviour rather than people who are more introverted.

Making Friendships and Forming Romantic Relationships

Although my Brazilian friend expressed that she felt the ‘personality change,’ she also

admitted that after spending so much time with her Italian boyfriend, he had seen all of

her sides: the Brazilian-her and the English-her. ‘We spend so much time together that

sometimes I get tired of speaking English to him and start speaking simple Portuguese

sentences so he would understand. One does not even have to speak fluent English to

be able to communicate with their significant other, they can use different words to

make up for words they do not know or throw some words from their mother-tongue. Of course, there are still things that he would not understand. For example, in Brazil

one can communicate only with gestures. Here, if I do the gestures I did in Brazil, nobody will understand me.’ She rested her head on her boyfriend’s chest who was sitting on the couch. Her boyfriend kissed her forehead and added: ‘If you are with someone and you have chemistry, you feel that you can communicate no matter the language. However, I do think it is because the languages are close -they both belong in the Latin family- and the cultures are close. It is easier for me to understand her than I would if she came from somewhere else that had nothing in common with Italy. If I was dating– let’s say a Russian, I may have felt the language and culture barrier.’

My Russian classmate, when describing her relationship with her Danish fiancé,

also admitted that even though there was never a strong language barrier, it got even

better with time. ‘There were sometimes that we could not express ourselves exactly

how we wanted since in our countries certain phrases mean different things’ she said.

‘Nevertheless, we slowly learned what those phrases meant in each other’s language.’

One would think it is more difficult to form a romantic relationship in a language that

you do not feel comfortable with, rather than a friendship as they require you to be closer

with your significant other that you would ever be with your friend. However, I was

proven wrong. Time and effort are the two ingredients that build any form of bond:

whether that is friendly or romantic. As it turned out though, someone is more likely to

put those in a potential partner rather than in a potential friend.

As my Brazilian friend explained: ‘With my boyfriend, I am more patient to explain

exactly what I mean. With my English-speaking friends, I do not have that patience and thus I keep what I had to say to myself. That’s why I do not form friendly connections easily here.’ The same was true for my Russian classmate as well: ‘I don’t go out of my way to make deep friendships here because I know that I will not stay for long in The Netherlands’, she said. Thus, we understand that it may be more difficult to form strong friendships abroad than strong romantic relationships. How can we overcome such difficulty?

It’s All About the Vibe!

While taking a stroll in Nieuwmarkt, I decided to visit the bar that Maria, my Greek friend, was working at. I have always loved this bar; the basement vibes, the stickers and graffiti all over the walls, the alternative music and the window right above the canal that I usually sit on. When Maria saw me, she offered me one of her widest smiles and opened her arms to embrace me. We cross-kissed as ‘classic Greeks’ and sat down to talk for a bit, during her break. She had moved to The Netherlands last November and expressing herself in English was still difficult, although she spoke it fluently. ‘I do not feel that my personality changes from English to Greek. But, I do feel I can articulate things better and more precisely in Greek. When I speak with internationals, I combine English and Greek and the result is a bit funny but it gets me places’ she giggled probably remembering an awkward moment when she was trying to get a message across. She believes that her difficulty in expression will eventually get better with time she spends abroad. ‘My communication in English has been improving and will get better. It is not the people that speak English: if the vibe is good, I can feel comfortable with them, even if I do not express myself in the best ways,’ she added.

Chemistry, a common theme across the conversations I had: if two people have chemistry, they can communicate in any language. But what is ‘chemistry’? Last spring, I met a young Brazilian expat who did not know any language but Portuguese. I was surprised that he managed to work and to get by in The Netherlands without knowledge of neither English, nor Dutch. His lifestyle intrigued me; he seemed like a person that had a lot to say. Such a pity that we could not speak the same language. An hour later, I thought differently. With the help of nothing but google translate we managed to have even political conversations. I have been in situations where communication was like a game of Chinese whispers, but we still managed to understand each other: Maria’s boyfriend said a sentence in Greek to Maria, who translated it in English to our Spanish friend who translated it to a mix of a Spanish dialect and Portuguese so our Brazilian friend would get the initial sentence. That has shown me that indeed, if two people want to communicate, they will.

The conversations I had demonstrated to me that forming relationships abroad need some extra ingredients; extra time and effort to understand and explain what each person means, and chemistry. If one puts those things in the relationship, whether they feel the personality switch or not, they will slowly feel comfortable to be the ‘real them’ with their friends or partners. So, if you just moved abroad and feel that the connections you made are not moving as fast as you thought, do not give up. Give it time, effort and chemistry.

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