Q Last summer my in-laws came for a two week visit to France -- their first. My husband and I (we are both American) did the best we could to give them a good time taking them on a tour through Normandy and Brittany. It was a very stressful experience, mainly because they never stopped making negative comments about France the smoke in restaurants, how late the French eat dinner, the small size of the hotel rooms. They even made a scene over a hamburger roll that didnt meet their standards. This summer, an aunt and uncle will be visiting, and Im dreading a repeat performance. How can I get them to focus on whats positive about France so we can all enjoy this visit?
A My suspicion is you and your visitors were probably pulling on opposite ends of a tightrope they saying how deficient France is, and you telling them how wonderful it is. If you had let go of your end, they might have toppled over -- figuratively that is -- and that particular tug of war might have ended.
Many expatriates are disappointed when guests dont share their enthusiasm about their adopted country. Our tendency is to want to show them how wrong they are.
First, consider the origin of their discontent. Are they simply disoriented by all that is new to them, so their anxiety is coming in the form of complaints? Are they close relatives who want you back in the States and are afraid youll dig in here, and who therefore subtly try to show you what a mistake youre making, by pointing out what they perceive as Frances weaknesses? Are they needy of your attention, and using this as an unpleasant way of obtaining it? Or, are they truly caricatures of the Ugly American who cant admit the virtues of any other way of life?
If your aunt and uncle have the same attitudes as your in-laws, I suggest you start by defusing the situation. Admit that they have a point. Show understanding for their annoyances, and express sympathy for their frustrations. Try telling them a story about some culturally frustrating thing you encountered when you first came here and how you coped with it. If its funny, all the better.
People coming to visit quite understandably expect to find the same person they knew back home. It doesnt occur to them that their negative comments are not only throwing a wet blanket on your efforts to make their visit successful, but are also wounding your new sensitivities and emerging loyalties to another way of life. Many expatriates only realize this themselves when they feel the sting from visitors negative remarks.
In other words, dealing successfully with this problem is a balancing act between validating your visitors observations and letting them know that their harsh comments are distressing you.
Jill Bourdais is a psychotherapist practicing in Paris both privately and in a hospital setting. A specialist in couple/family problems, she also teaches PAIRS, a skills-building course in intimate relationships. Tel: 01 43 54 79 25. Questions for the Personal column may be mailed to the Voice, 7 rue Papillon, 9e, or emailed to her directly at JABourdais@compuserve.com