Summer Sun Overshadowed by Scolding Remarks
Summer time typically conjures up images of happy hours relaxing in the sun with loved ones, friends, neighbours etc.. Laughter and smiles as families cherish their summer holiday together. Some may suffer from sunburn but sadly for others they may suffer from the pain of verbal abuse. This type of abuse does not leave a visible mark for others to witness but potentially can have devastating long-term effects.
Adjusting into any foreign country presents a wide variety of challenges, even for the outwardly packaged toughest Xpat. Being an Xpat does not mean you are a second-class citizen. Your basic human rights are not diminished because you make a choice to live as a law-abiding foreigner. But living as an Xpat may result in having to live on a daily basis without a network of support that had been a precious asset previously. A feeling of isolation is a common theme among Xpats I have met. Xpat parents battle to deal with the needs of their children in a, sometimes, unsympathetic environment. They try to seek empathy and their attempts may appear to fall on deaf ears in an unfamiliar setting. These feelings are not unusual for Xpats and there are many ways of trying to overcome these hurdles. Unfortunately for some, the isolation will draw the un-welcomed attention and encourage unjustified behaviour from abusers.
Do you remember as a child saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.”
Children are notorious for calling each other names e.g. big ears, four eyes (if you wear glasses), teachers pet (for those who would prefer to study rather than being naughty) etc… If anyone saw Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday party for children at Buckingham Palace on Sunday 25 June 2006, you would have witnessed the well-organised, comical show (summer pantomime) that celebrated the success of British children’s literature. During the show the children were encouraged to “boo & hiss” at the Baddies and laugh when they were called names. This was great entertainment for the children and adults but presents some problems when trying to provide guidance for the next generation.
How far do we encourage children to call others names? Is this is an effective way to communicate? I would not want to stop the great tradition and atmosphere at pantomimes. If anyone has accompanied children to such events they will appreciate how engrossed the children get and love joining in with the show. There needs to be a clear distinction that this type of name calling can not be part of normal interaction with other children at school, social events etc..
I have experienced and witnessed adults actively encouraging children to use sarcastic comments for their own selfish amusement. Adults who should be acting in a responsible manner by providing healthy balanced guidance reward this type of behaviour. Some people perceive sarcasm as a sign of a strong character. In most cases the easy option is to shout, swear and criticise others without trying to address the root cause of any problem. It takes a strong person to rise higher i.e. take a deep breath and try to be assertive.
Not all baddies wear costumes like the character Captain Cook or can be as easily identified. Sadly, abusers do not wear tee shirts with a warning showing they intend to cause you harm. Ironically abusers are manipulative and may appear to the outside world as jovial, hard working pillar of the community. When reports of abuse are finally revealed, common responses are: -
“What sort of monster would do that?”
“Nobody I know would do that sort of thing.”
These remarks are commonly associated with physical abuse as the clearly visible scars may shock people into action. Photographs cannot be taken of the mental and emotional scars inflicted by verbal abusers and surely if there are no physical signs of abuse then surely it cannot be that bad, can it?
The stereotype of an abuser is a male. Sadly the truth is both women and men have the capability of verbal and physical abuse and there have been many examples of this.
Surely this does not happen to Xpats they are professionals, typically, confident and have high incomes with a great quality of life, right?
Moving to a new country is a big decision and big life change. It may knock one’s confidence and may knock some off their guard when dealing with existing or new relationships at all levels.
Verbal abuse can take place in many different shapes and forms including the native citizen who enjoys publicly embarrassing the foreigner e.g.
One male butcher in a large supermarket in Zürich repeatedly insisted that I said the word for the number three in Swiss German opposed to German. This was one example of how he generally impatiently interacted with me in an aggressive manner. I agree with the saying “when in Rome do what the Romans do” and foreigners should try to make some attempt at speaking the local language. In this particular example the attempt was being made to speak German but was met with an irritated facial expression. I appreciate foreigners speaking English when visiting the U.K. but would not expect any foreigner to speak the local Scottish dialect (for example) when in Scotland. This example at the supermarket continued for a relatively short while and if I had more confidence in speaking German I would have complained to the Management. Strangely, when my partner was with me on one occasion the butcher had a remarkable different attitude. Thankfully, that person no longer works at the supermarket and although I continue to make mistakes in my attempts to speak German the other employees just appear to take it all in their stride and thankfully end up with the correct items.
Another example of aggressive verbal behaviour was from a well-known Insurance company in Zürich when an attempt was made to purchase Travel Insurance. My experience of obtaining Travel Insurance in the U.K. was typically a telephone call that lasted approx 15 minutes. There are more companies now offering this service via their websites and I assume the process takes even less time. This is an extract from an email that I received from that Insurance Company: -
“Before you start to send me your emails, I have mailed a lot with xxxx (so his time is not that limited) and I have answered all his questions about the trip to xxxxxxx.
Our booklets are not available in English. We have it in German, French and Italian. So if it is not available in English, you will not sign? WE DON'T HAVE IT IN ENGLISH ! You are in Switzerland, not in England. I can not change it.
xxxx did not complain, because of German policy.
I have a lot of patience but sometime to much is to much anyhow I will answer your questions below:
In the UK you can do all this by phone. Well......every country has there own insurance system. We have this.”
The sentence in capital letters is exactly as it appeared in the reply email. In email etiquette this is shouting. I have shown crosses where it referred to particular names and places.
To be honest I was disgusted when I received this email. The first point that came across to me was, ‘how dare you ask questions.’ It was made clear in previous emails that I was making attempts to learn German but as I am not fluent in the language therefore I needed to clarify a few points. This representative was trying to play off me with my partner. This is an aggressive and underhand tactic to impose feelings of guilt in an attempt to stop any further questions from being asked. Does anyone think that this type of email would have been sent to a Swiss national? Obviously the question of language would not need to be addressed but this tone would never have been used. There was also a strong hint of, ‘if you do not like it here you can go back to where you came from.’ The services provided in the U.K. were mentioned, not to try to prove they are better which are they are not, but to show they are different. If people took time to listen and learn about different countries it may help.
In the big scheme of life these examples are trivial and I do appreciate that. They do highlight how some people will direct the verbal abuse at foreigners as they feel they are easy targets. Good customer care should be offered to all clients not only those who hold a particular type of passport. But for anyone who may be feeling slightly vulnerable i.e. a new Xpat, these examples do not help and one may begin to feel the problem lies with them and not the abuser, which is a common theme. I was also informed by one Xpat mother, that allegedly (I was not present during the conversation) her Swiss Doctor told her how inadequate her current medication was and how his prescribed course of treatment was far more advanced than what she had been told in her home country. This may well be a fact and I cannot dispute the advice, as I am not a trained medical practitioner. This type of lecture may be suitable for the appropriate occasion but not directed to a vulnerable person who needed reassurance and advice to help deal with her medical condition.
Verbal abuse does also take place within a work environment and it maybe more difficult to deal with when the Xpat is the latest new foreigner to join the firm. I have witnessed and experienced verbal abuse in a work environment in the U.K. and in Switzerland. The City of London has a notorious reputation for people allowing their egos to overtake any sense of respect for others. Thankfully, new laws are being introduced within the U.K. to deal with the issues of working with respect and ageism within the workplace as examples. This will not stop all forms of abuse but may deter some or even make some think twice before lashing out verbally. Within a work environment there should be some form of structure in place where employees can make a complaint e.g. via the Human Resources Department. If nothing else there should be someone available to act as a mediator in cases of dispute. This is not easy when you are on probation (for example) and the abuser may be writing your review. The last resort is to resign but if a family need to be supported and bills have to be paid this is not always the smart option. I have come to learn that you do not have to like the people you work with but need to respect their boundaries and all you can ask is that they respect yours as well. It is also important to get to know your audience in a work environment e.g. some people may be sensitive about certain subjects such as religion, so it is important to steer clear of any jokes regarding this. At a seminar in London, the question was put, “Should employees expect to receive some form of verbal abuse in a highly pressurised work environment?” I was shocked to hear that some people agreed with this. I made the point that the impact of the verbal abuse does not stop as soon as the employee walks out of the door. Depending on the severity of the abuse, this could have a negative affect on the employee for a long time. We are meant to be working in a professional environment and this type of behaviour should not be deemed to be socially acceptable. The moment people start to accept this behaviour the potential is there for the abuse to escalate. Clear boundaries need to be set. No professional company should encourage a culture of verbal abuse and should be seen to deal with it at the earliest possible stage.
In Switzerland the verbal abuse was associated at being an Xpat e.g.
” coming over here taking money from my budget…………”
”The lazy English*, they couldn’t be bothered to do anything to clear this account up etc………”
*the person making this comment did mean English and not British as the criticism was directed at me. I was born in London but consider myself a British citizen.
Some of this verbal abuse was from a female, which reinforces the point that males are not the only abusers. At one point, I spoke to the female in question and explained that at that time, I was on my own. The only person present to protect me was me. I was not responsible for all the problems she was facing at that time. In that particular area, matters did improve and although it was difficult it was worth the effort trying to tackle the problem head on. This is not always possible or practical.
I also worked in a company in Switzerland where swearing and verbal abuse amongst employees was almost actively encouraged. The excuse was that it was a sales environment that had tough deadlines to meet. No consideration was given to any of the employees in the office who may have found this behaviour offensive and no consideration was given to how unprofessional this made the company look. Sometimes potential clients did come into the office and there was the risk this could have all been overheard. This type of environment will motivate staff into being more proactive and being more successful, right? No. This type of environment will cause resentment and bitterness amongst the employees. More flies are caught with honey. If new employees are presented with a professional, fair, flexible, rewarding work environment this will motivate employees to be successful, respectful, and co-operative.
The more serious examples of verbal and emotional abuse are those that happen within families and relationships.
Adults who make a choice to enter a relationship always have the choice to leave the relationship but if the relationship turns abusive the dynamics of that relationship may change. The victim of verbal abuse does not always fall under the stereotype of an uneducated introvert. I have witnessed a well-educated woman who was a member of a management team and appeared to have a confident personality (in the workplace) reduced to tears in a public bar by her male partner. This did not make this particular female Xpat a bad person but, for whatever reason, was willing to accept abusive behaviour. This was not a one off incident and it is symptomatic of our social misunderstanding of how serious verbal abuse is, that no one in that social group would confront or question the abuser.
“Oh, it is a domestic problem, isn’t it.”
“What can we do?”
These are typical thoughts that run through our minds when we do no want to make the effort to try to help
Dr. Phillip McGraw (Dr Phil) the famous psychologist in the U.S.A. refers to a saying: “ There are no victims, only volunteers.” He advises, “Don’t go along to get along. Peace at any price is no peace at all.” More details can be seen on: -
Maintaining any relationship requires continuous effort and hard work. Being an Xpat may mean that you do not have the much needed support network of friends and family close to you in terms of location. The excitement of living in a foreign country may dissipate quickly. If your partner continually criticises any efforts you make it may be difficult to maintain self-belief and start to think that all these problems are your fault. If the only feedback you receive is negative it may not be long before your outlook is negative. It can be difficult at times to remember that you always have a choice.
A healthy, mutual interaction and conversation between two persons respects and promotes the right of each partner to their own individual thoughts, perceptions, and values.
Dr Phillip McGraw’s book entitled: Life Strategies. Doing what works, Doing what matters. (First published in 1999) includes a chapter,
‘We teach people how to treat us.’
Making a decision to leave a relationship is a difficult life adjustment but being in a foreign country may make that move even more difficult.
People accept verbal abuse for a wide variety of reasons and it is a topic too vast to give it justice in this article. Some people tend to go from one abusive relationship to another due to a serious underlying problem. This negative pattern does not change until the root cause of the problem is dealt with. It is common for women to marry alcoholics if they have an alcoholic Father. It is said that is all they know, therefore the vicious cycle continues.
The important point is not to suffer in silence.
It may be difficult to find the required support as an Xpat but do try to find a network of friends in an Xpat group or a religious organisation. If both partners are employed it may be possible to find the required support in the workplace.
Isolation can increase the feeling of vulnerability and increase the cycle of abuse.
With the adequate level of support the mist can clear and the truth can be accepted that when another adult makes the choice to verbally abuse you, it is not about you. It is all about the abuser. The abuser is the one with the problem and they are cowards. They would not direct the abuse at a person who is strong both physically and mentally. The abuser is also typically insecure and has low self-esteem. Personally, I think too much attention and sympathy is directed to abusers and it is now time for the pendulum to swing in favour of the person on the receiving end of these cowardly acts. Abusers typically come from abusive homes and choose the easy route to copy what they have witnessed rather than choosing to rise higher.
The cruellest form of abuse is that directed at children especially from parents/guardians. Two adults may choose to enter into a relationship but a child has no choice in the decision of his/her birth. Some selfish, resentful, bitter, angry parents do take their feelings of frustration out on their children.
The book, ‘ Behind Closed Doors’ by Jenny Tomlin who is the mother of the British actress Martine McCutcheon depicts the appalling affect abuse has on childrens’lives.
‘A Child called IT’ and ‘Lost Boy’ are best selling books by Dave Pelzer who was horrifically abused by his mother. The books are described as immensely powerful but importantly a story where love, kindness, patience and endurance triumph.
In my opinion being a parent is the most difficult job in the world but also the most important job in the world. Children are our future.
Being a parent in a foreign country can prove especially difficult as the relatives, friends, reliable babysitters may not be readily available to offer encouragement, a helping hand and sympathetic ear.
I have witnessed, experienced, and heard stories of parents/guardians constantly criticising their children, correcting their vocabulary or pronunciation, calling them stupid, a ‘plain Jane’ (directed at a daughter) and actively encouraging other relatives to ridicule the child with sarcastic remarks.
Clear boundaries and routine do need to be set for children to help prepare them for the harsh reality of life. But taking out frustrations and anger on children can undermine the child’s self-esteem, damage her/his ability to trust and form relationships and chip away at the child’s academic & social skills.
Some adults may say, “Well they need to be toughened up etc…” Verbal abuse does do long term harm and will not make anyone a stronger character.
Spending two or three weeks with relatives on a summer vacation may be a strain at times, especially if work commitments have resulted in being away from the home environment for long periods of time. Some advise to take a “time-out” in moments of stress and anger. The parents/guardians are the most important role models. If they tend to act abusively at challenging times, they will likely raise children who do the same.
Adults in an abusive relationship may be able to seek advice, gain a “reality check,” analyse, and rationalise that they are not the cause. One often hears how children shoulder the blame when their parents/guardians are angry or upset. Imagine the isolation the only child feels when the parent/guardian berates them with sarcastic, guilt ridden comments e.g. “If I didn’t have to take care of you, I could have a better life.” The child that is deprived of love and affection may feel that they must be bad as otherwise their parents/guardians would be able to love them.
It is sometimes difficult for children to get anyone to believe them. Children can have an over active imagination. Abusers are typically manipulative and cunningly put on a charming mask when socially interacting with other adults. Some abusers regarded to be important member of a community will not be detected for many years. One father of a school friend made me feel incredibly uncomfortable but I was told on many occasions (by her family) that he was a hard working family man and he continually boasted how he would spend his exhuberent pension. He was sacked from his job after his Employer refused to continue to tolerate his addiction to alcohol. The truth of his extensive abusive behaviour did prevail.
The next time the stresses and strains of life seem to be unbearable, please take a moment to think before using a loved one as a punch bag. There are help groups, counsellors etc.. available to offer help to adults. Depending on the severity of abuse, adults usually have a choice to leave a relationship. Children (especially the younger ones) do not have the choice to leave their parents/guardians unless official governmental Social Workers get involved.
The intention of this article is not to have a Pity Party or place a dark cloud over the summer sunshine but comes from an Xpat who has heard enough and had enough.
How many times have we heard or joined in with the expression,
“Well, you were asking to be bullied”
“If she wasn’t wearing that particular outfit she would not have been touched”
How many times do we offer excuses and sympathy for the abuser?
When I tried to put forward my objection how one male had inappropriately touched me during a social networking event, the response by another Xpat was that this may be due to the fact that I come across as being reserved. It most likely was a thoughtless action with no bad intention but nevertheless the onus of the cause was placed on the person just sitting there who was perceived as being quiet. It was also said that some people may like that attention, how was he supposed to know. The only person responsible for that male’s behaviour was him.
It would be great to start up a campaign to actively help support those who are subjected to verbal abuse. Make a stand, be different.
What we should never forget is that there is always HOPE. In her Commonwealth Day message for 2006, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II made reference to a traditional proverb that states, “He who has health has hope, and he who has hope has everything.” Light will break through the clouds.
I refused to be dragged down to interacting with verbal abusers by swearing and shouting back at them as that is the only way they can communicate (for example). I do not want to change my personality in an attempt to fit in with their distorted set of values.
We may have witnessed negative behaviour from our own parents/guardians but we now have the choice not to continue to pass on the junk to the next generation. We can make a choice to rise higher and we make a choice to respect others.
Whatever you are doing this summer, I hope you have a lovely time. If you do have the opportunity to spend time with relatives or friends, I hope you have a relaxing, fun time that will provide you with precious moments to cherish and strengthen your relationships.
Theresa Avery © July 2006
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