Does living abroad give you a split personality?

A few months back, as I was cursing the detritus of a burst teabag in my morning cup of Earl Grey (in shall-we-say somewhat brisk Glaswegian), a Spanish colleague piped up from across the desk with an unexpected appeal.

“Julie, por favor, habla en español.” Looking a bit sheepish, his tone verged on imploring.

Now, this particular colleague speaks excellent English. The request was not prompted by frustration at not understanding.

“Ooh, yes”, every other colleague suddenly tipped in their tuppence, “you sound much nicer in Spanish”.

Guardedly spooning out the teabag gloop, I probed for further details.

Earl Grey by Anaulin

It seems that when I speak in my native English – on the phone, to one of the few fellow Brits in the office – I sound “harsh, hard-nosed, intimidating”. My colleagues didn’t quite go this far, which was considerate of them, but the message was clear – I assume a different personality depending on whether English or Spanish is coming out of my mouth.

Couple this experience with my last trip home to Scotland at Christmas, where even in mundane social interactions I was stunned at my alterity, and I’m really starting to wonder.

Does living abroad end up giving you a split personality?

Identity crisis

Let’s be honest, those of us who have upped sticks and fled our native shores. An appealing perk of relocating abroad is the opportunity it affords you to slough off an old self and reinvent yourself into a shiny new one.

Oh the untrammelled ontological possibilities that await. You can be anything!

Sort of.

Trouble is, before you can don the garb of a brand new foreign self, at least in any way convincingly, you have to shed a lifetime’s worth of cultural tenets and assumptions.

Precisely what you as an individual have to give up, of course, depends on the country you’ve come from and the one you’re trying to settle in. But I think it’s fair to say that whatever your particular set of circumstances, there’s likely to be some common ground in this psychological no-man’s land.

  • Mostly you feel like a pair of scissors. Each blade is a separate self, and on the rare day that the two come together, you could actually kiss strangers in sheer joy.
  • Mostly you feel like a fake. Coping with your new culture’s demands while trying to stay true to your home culture’s values inevitably means you always feel like you’re letting one of them down.
  • You’re perpetually mentally knackered. The daily abrading of two different cultures produces a constant, low-level anxiety, on top of the big things in life that everyone else has to worry about. As Petya Kirilova-Grady puts it so succinctly on her blog: “I feel that as expats/immigrants, etc., we often get pulled in multiple directions, which tends to keep us busy at best, anxious at worst.”
  • You’re constantly sidestepping the somatic tripwire. Sniffles that would have been trifles back home suddenly have the power to land you in bed for days.
  • At work, you’re now a nobody. Your professional identity has been defenestrated. Unless your employer in your native country has posted you abroad, you’re starting from scratch – in a foreign language, in a foreign country – and having to accept that no-one has a clue how good you really are. Your degrees and professional qualifications? They don’t mean a thing.
  • Your social status got chucked out behind it. The way you’ve always traditionally defined yourself (relationships with family, friends, community) is history.
  • You will be labelled in a way no-one has prepared you for. In your home country, you were simply ‘yourself’, and never really gave it much thought. In your adopted country, you may be, variously, a foreigner, an expat, an immigrant, a Scot/Brit/American/whatever, and if you’re in Barcelona, pejoratively, a guiri.
  • Some traits will never transpose. The sooner you accept that if you greet people with just a handshake in Spain they’ll think you’re socially frigid, and, conversely, greeting your elderly neighbours in Scotland with a bear hug and a huge smile frankly distresses them, the better. 
  • You don’t even recognise yourself when you do go ‘home’. Even there, you’re now an outsider looking in, questioning quirks and idiosyncrasies, wondering why your country people have no equivalent of ‘buen provecho’ before tucking in to even the most insignificant snack.

Give us this day our daily dialectic

Even after almost three years in Barcelona, there are days here I feel I’m operating under a mere veneer of authenticity.

Of course, part of the reason I moved abroad in the first place was to gain exposure to people with a whole other mindset, in an attempt to grow as a rounded human being. But being surrounded by folk who are constantly challenging your accepted view of the world can be wearying and unsettling.

Last year, for example, when my Cocker Spaniel was reaching puberty, and every male dog in the neighbourhood was hassling the hell out of her, I took her to be spayed at my trusted local vet’s.

“If you only knew”, he sighed, “how hard it is to convince Spanish people to get their dogs neutered. You’re saving her from countless cancers, unwanted puppies and a lifetime’s grief from other dogs, but try telling locals that.”

Cocker Spaniel relaxing

One hassle-free hound.

This was brought home to me repeatedly throughout the day. As I fretted, imagining her on the operating table, anguishing over whether she’d come round from the anaesthetic, my Spanish, Italian and Portuguese male colleagues didn’t hold back. “You’re evil for doing this”, one said. Another, slathering slabs of ham over his bocadillo, stated point-blank in all seriousness that he would never speak to me again.

“It’s even worse when it’s a male dog”, the vet told me later that evening as I collected my cone-clad Cocker. “Don’t even get me started.”

Even basic daily assumptions don’t go undisputed.

For example, when the pedestrian crossing light changes to green, you put one foot in front of the other in the full belief that the driver will honour your recognised right not to be mown down. But in reality, this is far from a given in Barcelona.

This constant challenging and up-ending of ingrained cultural assumptions gets downright tedious, and on days when linguistic issues come to the fore, it can quickly become overwhelming. To speak another language successfully, it’s not simply a case of conjugating the imperfect subjunctive at the opportune moment. You actually have to adopt a different personality – and way of thinking – for it to come across convincingly.

As a Scot living in Barcelona, it gets even more complicated. Apart from the problem of whether to sign off with an adiós or an adéu, there are macrocosmic cultural questions at work. Spain is a country with a serious split personality of its own, while Scotland currently finds itself in the approach to a historic referendum on independence from the United Kingdom.

With both of my wider environments embroiled in identity crises of their own, is it any wonder I’m confused?

Inscribing identities

So with your identity in freefall on foreign soil, how do you recognise your ‘real’ self?

The deep-rooted cultural values and beliefs that make you you are the bedrock of your identity, and you will fight to retain them at all costs. Look out for the ones you let go, though…who knows – in the long run, maybe those are the parts of your personality you’re better off without.


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12 Comments

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12 Responses to Does living abroad give you a split personality?

  1. Oh, Julie! How I feel your pain! I’ve found that the only thing that’s really truly helped me is… time. I know, not very helpful. But over the years, I feel I have been able to meld my various identities into an ultimately truer, more authentic version of me. I don’t think it could have happened any faster BUT I do think that blogging about it has helped.

    Hugs from chilly Memphis!
    Petya K. Grady recently posted..KATE ZAMBRENO’s Heroines: When she experiences it, it’s pathological. When he does, it’s existential.My Profile

    • Thanks Petya:) Yes, good old time, eh? Things certainly get easier over time, but I doubt the inherent cultural contradictions ever get any easier to navigate, to be honest. With you on the blogging/bumping gums front though!

  2. I remember a Spanish friend of mine who lived in London told me how exhausting it was living in another country, speaking another language. Speaking the language at work then going home to her flat share and speaking to her flatmates in English. She said until she moved back to Barcelona she didn’t realise quite how much it strained her. So bravo to you and every one else who does it!!
    Alex recently posted..An Amazing Day In BarcelonaMy Profile

    • Thanks Alex! Yeah, I suppose it’s one of those things you just do and get on with, without thinking about it. I will never cease to be impressed by people (like many of my colleagues) who seem to switch effortlessly between several different languages in the one day. I do think it’s a distinct disadvantage of being British – the relentless reliance on English dulls the brain to other ways of thinking.

  3. Enjoyed reading this! Thanks fore sharing. It does sometimes feel you do have a split personality, especially when returning to your home country and you have to change back to your old self a little!
    Chai a Cup of Life recently posted..Summer Time And Soy BurgersMy Profile

  4. ¨You’re perpetually mentally knackered.¨ I don´t know what the word ¨knackered¨ means, but this is completely how I feel about living abroad.
    Kate Peregrina recently posted..4 Paid English Teaching Programs in SpainMy Profile

  5. Cristina Giavedoni

    Hermoso Julie como escribes !! Te admiro amiga y estoy muy orgullosa de ti . :)

  6. Diana

    Interesting and thoughtful entry. Having lived in Spain full-time (Malaga province) and then later every summer (I’m a a teacher) and now about aproximately 5 months a year since I’ve retired, I was especially struck by your comments regarding the perception of your “British personality” when you speak English versus your “softer” aspect when you speak Spanish. I’ve noticed this in myself, and must say I like my “softer” Spanish self. I have struggled my whole with the “over-bearing” aspects of my personality but of course have never really changed much . The excuse I give myself is that as a basically extroverted person, the oldest of seven siblings, a mother AND a teacher, I’m destined be somewhat relentless. But I found that when I am in Spain, although I am very fluent in Spanish, I’ll never be fluent enough to use the verbal tricks I do in English – find that infinitesimal pause, to jump in ( ie. interrupt), the facility for arguing well, but too long, etc. etc. In Spanish while I hold my own, I’m forced to be more of a good listener because of language. This is very, very relaxing and more like the person I would like to be all the time. Instead of being intense I’m more easy going in Spain because life in my village is also more easy-going, really just one long dawdling conversation, which I like…until it drives me crazy). whereas public intercourse in the US is always “on point.” I also have 5 sister in laws in Spain whom I love like I do my 3 sisters in the US, so I my social life revolves a lot around family, and that keeps me more civilized too. I don’t curse in Spanish for example, because my sister-in-laws don’t and I like that. I’ve never been part of an expat community and so am not “split” in that way. With time, I’ve lost the accomodation to others, both here and there so I’m pretty much myself now. It took me a long time to discover who that was, (as it takes everyone a long time.) But I put that down to age. As an American, I am horrified by many of my countries policies, and as I’ve evolved to a Socialist point of view, I don’t encounter those political conflicts as I did when I was younger, more defensive and held out more hope for political solutions. I also see better some of the small progress we’ve made (but with such a long way to go still) as Spain evolves from the homogeneous society it was when I first came in the 60’s, to a more diverse one and the conflicts that entails. they’re not handling it well either. But I do like the relative color-blindness of Spanish society. US society is still very racist. So long story short, as another commenter said, time will will take care of a lot of your concerns.

    • Hello Diana, and thanks for taking the time to comment so fully. There’s a lot of this that chimed with me. Fascinating point about life in your village being one long conversation…I wonder if English speakers tend to get to the point more quickly, generally? What I find frustrating at times is the ‘touchy-feely’ stuff I’m compelled to pepper my Spanish emails and speech with, which seems to be demanded by the culture, but which would only clog up emails in English to a culturally cringeworthy degree. Do you really think Spanish society is less racist than the US? Have to say I find it very racist – though I don’t know the US one really to compare.

  7. Natasha

    Hi Julie,

    I think this post is great!

    I’ve actually just moved to BCN from England a few weeks ago and it’s exhausting. Sometimes I try (and fail) to speak to my Spanish boyfriend in English just to give my brain a rest…one can wish, right?

    I’ll keep reading your blog to keep me going :)

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