It was my first time leaving North America. I was 18 and so excited for the experiences waiting on the other side of that journey. Dallas to Brussels, Brussels to Paris. It all sounded so glamorous! I was a world traveler! As soon as the wheels lifted off the ground on that last flight, I felt my stomach drop (and not from turbulence).
I speak enough French to get by… right? But what if I mess it all up? What if I use the wrong greeting? I don’t even know what mistakes I should be avoiding.
You get the idea. At 18 years old, I may have been over-thinking, but the fear of committing faux pas is not unreasonable. We all want to make a good impression, and respect in a new culture is important.
There is a problem with that fearful reaction, though:
What if I mess up?
In the end, fear makes us self-centered. Of course, we should be responsible for how we present ourselves, but some amount of faux pas is inevitable. What if that wasn’t something to fear, but to embrace as an opportunity?
Suddenly, that offensive thing I say or do is not about how embarrassed I am to have damaged my pride, but a chance to say “I value you and want to honor you. Please forgive my mistake.”
Even perfection, if it fuels pride, is self-serving; humble imperfection is an opportunity for care.
This can be especially true for those, like teachers, who are in positions of leadership. A mistake can make you more approachable without taking away your authority. You can show that you have something to learn from your students as well, and now you both have some expertise to contribute. Showing a gap in your knowledge of the host culture opens the door for reciprocal teaching and learning with students, and reciprocity is essential for any relationship to function well.
Now, of course, do your research on the culture before you get there, and learn the most common pitfalls. Try to avoid mistakes, but when they happen, use them to honor the people around you.
Nobody wants to make a mistake, but it can be more of a gift than a curse. A crack in the facade will show what lies underneath. Will it be my wounded pride or humble concern for the one I have offended? Beautiful doors can be opened when we choose humility over fear!