Itinerant member

I’m an itinerant member of society… living in France for three years now has become the longest time I have spent continuously in one city since leaving home nearly 20 years ago and the longest time overall in a city since leaving university. I obviously don’t like staying in one place for very long. In those 13 postgraduate years I have lived in five different countries with only 5 of those years back in the UK. I also obviously don’t like living in my country of origin very much. I hardly feel to belong to my hometown any more, never mind ‘my’ country. Even though I have very little doubt that both shape my identities considerably, I don’t consciously accept any relationship between who I am and where I am from. The only irritating exception to this is my support for national teams in sport. Despite my desperation not to identify on a national level because it contradicts my universal human beliefs, I cannot shake this emotional response to sporting pride. My beliefs are played out, though, in the way in which I try to adapt to everywhere I go as much as possible. I wouldn’t say I have any desire to ‘go native’, as that would just reinforce the nationalisation of identity I am so against. Instead, this ‘adapting’ is more a desire to belong in different groups.

I think adapting is a natural process… unless there exist ghettos which enable you not to adapt. (I try to avoid these – as much as I liked many of my classmates at uni, when they all hung out together almost permanently in Toulouse during a two-month study programme, I hung out elsewhere and with other people.) I studied in Scotland and gained a Scottish lilt to my accent in the process. It was in Glasgow mind you, so some might say it was a survival technique for a weedy Englishman. I think the really interesting thing is though, that you adapt within your familiar surroundings too. An innate in-group aversion means I have several very different groups of friends in the same place (and ‘former’ places), with a group behaviour style to fit in with each of them: perhaps I’m an itinerant chameleon. This shiftiness of character needs acceptance by the groups as well. In some of my experiences the group identity was so strong it excluded temporary group members. Conversely, the group identity can be very superficial because it is too open and spontaneous. I’ve lived in both Madrid and Barcelona and in my experience they were at either extreme of this group identifying process. I was really privileged to be incorporated into a tight-knit group in Barcelona where it felt like the group bonds would last for life, but I also felt great joy in belonging in a 6-hour lasting party group spontaneously gathered in the streets of Madrid one night. I don’t think I can make a call on the rights and wrongs of either – it’s just the way it is. It might be very easy for the itinerant, however, to take away conclusions that judge one or other society well or badly, and that’s where I think a mistake would be made. I think I get on well in nearly all new situations I find myself because I accept them as they are and try to make the most of them by adapting my own behaviour.  At least I think I do! Perhaps I should ask the group members whose space I’ve invaded!

8 thoughts on “Itinerant member”

  1. I think it’s natural to play different roles according to your context, and that these roles can be quite different. We all vary our language use significantly according to the role we’re playing, and would find ourselves seriously unable to connect meaningfully if we didn’t. This isn’t being 2 faced; it’s accommodating to audience which is necessary to make any social interaction work efficiently.

    In my opinion, nationality is completely irrelevant on one level, but unavoidable on another. By accident of birth, most of us are socialised into the ways of our compatriots,like it or not. Unless you can become fluent in the language, it’s impossible to be who you want to be, and once you become fluent, there are paralinguistic features and pragmatic conventions which can still fool you. I have to be able to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ on every conceivable occasion, or, because of deep-seated conditioning, I’d choke on the next word if I didn’t!

    Probably, because I’ve never lived anywhere but the UK, I now don’t want to. I need my culture. I need to understand even the smallest nuance of meaning. When I’m away from it for a while, it’s refreshing, but I don’t regret coming home.

    On the other hand, I don’t much mind when national sports teams lose – just as well, or I’d have had a very miserable life. Many of my compatriots embarrass me, especially when in groups in other countries. My best friends are a whole mixture of nationalities. I like them because of qualities and interests that we share, and I’m not close to compatriots who don’t share these.

    In his historical thriller, a great book but with no literary pretensions, CJ Sansom puts these words into the mouth of his main character: “In worshipping their nationhood, men worship themselves and scorn others, and that is no healthy thing” – and I agree.

    1. Thank you for your enlightening comments. I think the way we use language can really tell us a lot about roles we’re playing / identities we possess and you make me think of John Gumperz and his interactional sociolinguistics. He was involved in the development of the concept of speech communities, which I interpret as identifying with social groups in the paralinguistic and pragmatic senses you describe. What I find fascinating is the existential significance we can apply to this form of socialising. I suppose there is a neverending debate on the extent to which interaction actually forms who you are (derived from the Palo Alto school), as opposed to fixed identities according to determined functional groups (masks and acting in interaction according to the Chicago school and Erwin Goffman). Yet, it just seems too reductionist to rely on self-interest as the motivation for interaction, as consequent relationships must surely be severely superficial and cold? I prefer more recent relational theory, such as Colin Talbot’s Homo Janus in association with Alan Page Fiske’s Relational Model Theory .

      Through my own experiences, I’m not sure about the fluency in a language issue. I think fluency can certainly enable you to feel more comfortable in foreign or second language situations, but for me it is really down to the compromise reached between ‘interactors’ to establish a shared togetherness in the contextual space. I have been in situations where my fluency was insufficient to create that sense of sharing, but where other means of interaction compensated for that. As you point out, exactly the opposite can occur within shared language spaces. In spite of fluency in the language, groups can adopt discriminatory and excluding measures to prevent you entering the group.

      I am not trying to suggest that nationality is not a part of one’s identity, more that it tends to be overemphasised and to extremely divisive effect. I’m not convinced that if you moved within the UK you would find the same level of comfort of belonging as that provided by your social groups and environments where you are living? In my opinion, exaggeration of the significance of nationality hides a vast multitude of identity-creating social groups and cultures within (and outside) the nation space. I’m looking forward to borrowing CJ Sansom off you!

      1. I can’t beleive in fixed identites. I don’t think we’re fixed from one moment to the next, never mind for long periods of time, so, yes, I suppose I’m firmly in the Palo alto school. How about just finding other people so interesting that you can forget who you are for a bit while you listen to them? Or that you want to share yur thoughts and experiences with them, so that you both come away a little bit different? Mutual conversion.

        I agree that I’m firmly rooted and value my present sets of groups greatly – but I’m a different person with each one of them, and sometimes, I find myself in contexts when I simply can’t be bothered to interact at all. It’s just too much small talk, and there’s no need to be polite. Moreover, I think I could be happy in other locations; I’ve learned how to exist socially, and what I need to do to achieve group membership, given time. It needs a lot of effort but it’s worth doing. And I think it could be done outside the UK. It’s other aspects of the British culture I’d miss.

  2. Fascinating post–knowing you personally–and equally interesting comment from Gwen.

    A couple of thoughts…

    First… Have you ever felt “inauthentic” in any of the group-place situations you’ve migrated between? I ask–OK, rhetorically–because of the quite common use of “autèntic” in Catalan to describe people, as in “és molt autèntic aquest tió” (That guy’s very authentic… You mean, genuine? …you mean, real? …uh?!?). (I assume this occurs in a similar way in Spanish, but then again, maybe not… in your post you hint at differences in socialising between Barcelona- and Madrid-folk). Sometimes I hear this expressed in connection with national identities. I, for example, have been described as “un autèntic anglès” (an authentic Englishman), yet I’m not quite sure what they’re getting at—like a lot of English British passport holders, I’m not sure what being English means (see Jeremy Paxman, Paul Kingsnorth, and on and on). Perhaps another word to play with is disingenuous. I guess I wanted to know your thoughts on the how people who are able to navigate between different groups are viewed by others who are less adept, have less experience, or have had less opportunity to experiment. Sometimes the cultural chameleon is viewed with suspicion—adaption sometimes requires compromise, and don’t some compromises compromise integrity? Is the onus on the other to let go of the need to identify, read and locate (categorise?) the adept adaptor?

    Second… If you were a page in a book of humanity in which some of its storylines just keep getting better and better (more and more knowing), then I think your page would be towards the end of the book; better put, it would be one of the most recently written pages. You’ve been able to write your page thanks to a special combination of privilege, your own drive, intellectual endowment and some highly laudable, thorough and ongoing reflection. My concern is that most of the world’s readers are several pages back in the book. What to do to get more people reading and understanding your page?

    1. You’re very kind to suggest I’m maybe nearing the end of the book, others might be less so and say I’m just really out on a limb. Either way I’ve certainly got an addiction for uniqueness, so perhaps I don’t want some other people to get to the same page? Maybe that also explains the comfort to float along superficially, hopping from one group to another. There is clearly this distinction between authenticity and social masks. I’d suggest that it depends which camp you fall into. Personally, I think there can be enough bonds and connections established between two ‘interactors’ to create an authentic rapport without being superficial – that would disqualify the social mask theory for me. This is a psychological interpretation of “authenticity”, though, which fails to elaborate on your question.
      It is really interesting you mention the Catalan situation, particularly since you bring to my mind another comment from a Quebecois contact recently. He was describing participative politics in Quebec and he said that you had to share a ‘common identity’ to be accepted within the participative process. The ‘common identity’ makes me think of the Catalan ‘autèntic’. I don’t accept the concept so it’s hard for me to determine if I’ve ever felt unauthentic in a particular situation. I don’t think it really matters if you do. I understand the need for lesser-protected identities to try to reinforce themselves, however, and I would say that Scotland gave me that impression too when I lived there. These are three autonomous regions in a politicised identity conflict, and this makes the insider-outsider binary stronger.
      I have, naturally, felt like an outsider on numerous occasions. That has had an impact both on me and the ‘insiders’ I’m interacting with, and therefore, I think the onus is on both of us to negotiate an interaction which reach mutual interests. I will seek ways to create intimacy with strangers, to erase the polarised tension, and to develop a shared interaction. This will not get anywhere without the other’s co-operation though. This doesn’t mean “letting go of the need to identify, read and locate (categorise?) the adept adaptor”. On the contrary, it seems to me that all interactions require this to establish common ground to base the relationship on. I believe this common ground exists between all human beings, but perhaps I’m the disingenuous one!

      1. I think you’re very brave if you’re prepared to try to find common ground with every interlocuter. I read the signs, and back away if I think i’ve read them correctly and don’t want to relate! Life’s too short. However, I do think the signs are there and that they are the start of interaction.

        I do think that nationality does lead to ‘common identity’, and that this could be a key to understanding ‘authentic’. It has to go beyond stereotype, and into shared consciousness, folk memory – and we often don’t know what that is, nor how long you have to belong to any place to acquire it. You could argue, and probably will, that this isn;t confined to any one nationality too – maybe it’s global.

    2. Do you read ‘stereotyped’ for ‘authentic’. I’m sure not, because I don’t think you’d fit into any of the stereotypes of the English. Does anyone? It’s very intriguing. I’ve been playing eith the idea in my head for ages, but can’t get a handle on it.

      I don’t think I’ve ever felt ‘inauthentic’, though, of course, I haven’t moved around much, but I do feel alienated from some groups. It isn’t anything to do with ethnicity, though, but with codes and behaviour, and it’s very linked with language use – English language, because I don’;t know any other languages well enough to recognise the features.

      I still don’t go with the social chameleon idea – I think you’d be in real trouble if you couldn’t adapt yourself to your interlocuters! I suppose it’s how far you’d take it, and whether it ends up as mere cowardice.

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