Friday, June 24, 2011

Split Personalities in Sweden

I have a split personality. Not the kind that talks to you. Or the kind that convinces you that there are unicorns in your closet. But the kind that comes with speaking two languages at a relatively advanced level.

The more time I spend in this country as an adult, and the more time I spend in the US as an adult, the more I realize that straddling the two countries, sliding into my Swedish persona while in Europe and my American persona while in the US isn’t as hard as it once was. Because no matter what anyone tells you, if you speak two languages relatively well, you most likely have two different personalities. Eventually, hopefully, they meld into some sort of super personality making you incredibly successful, irresistible to attractive women, and even more awesome than you already are. Or something like that.

Chances are though, instead of being that super person you will find yourself sitting around at dinner parties thinking of all the witty remarks you’d like to make. And don’t. Or wanting to join in on that discussion about politics. But by the time you think of how to say what you want to say, the conversation has moved to discussing people’s least favorite punctuation mark. Mine is the comma. You may have noticed. I don’t use them. Mostly because I don’t really know how to use them properly. And I hate them. Stay focused.

It’s a frustrating realization though. Not the comma usage, but the split personalities. Mostly because it takes such time. And if you’re anything like me, you spend a lot of time going back and forth between two cultures. It sounds like a good idea. It is a good idea. But it leads to frustration.

This hit me the other day after having been back in Sweden for a while. I have two very distinct group of friends. I have English-speaking friends and I have Swedish-speaking friends. I have a few that cross over for whatever reason, but I find myself, even in Sweden, floating back and forth between my English personality and my Swedish personality.

I’m getting better at melding the two. The more time I stay here, the more I learn about the country the culture, and the language, the more comfortable I am cracking jokes. Discussing politics. Even making fun of people. I’m a horrible person, I know. But doing all those little things that form a personality worth knowing. Or not. I’ll leave that up to other people to decide.

Those split personalities though are the thing I watch other people deal with. And discuss. And eventually meld. It’s hard as hell. It’s fun as hell too, though. Because all those little things suddenly are worth so much more. Like the first time you crack a joke and people laugh. In a different language. Or the first time you can actually hold your own in a discussion about complicated issues that you care about. In a different language. Or the first time you can make fun of the guy wearing a bright green polo with the collar popped and red jeans. In a different language. It’s a wonderful feeling. And it’s what makes going abroad so amazing. And what makes learning a different language so worth it.

Welcome to Sweden. And multiple identities.

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  1. As for myself, I don't think I have different personalities in my two languages. But I do think the process of learning a new culture certainly has helped me develop new habits and social skills. If I were to move back to Sweden, I hope I would bring them with me.

    I talk to strangers a lot more often now, especially since moving to Oakland where conversations with strangers is a perfectly normal thing. Only once in Sweden did I talk to a stranger and I ended up moving to CA!!

    I do remember thinking of some incredibly funny Swedish pun or joke but being unable to mention it because the person I'm talking to wouldn't understand a thing. Thankfully, this form of torment almost never happens anymore. I think it means I'm more present in the here and now, in this Californian culture where I live.

    Perhaps it came from homesickness, from having to rely on Lindeman tapes and books from a yearly care package for my dose of Swedish language and culture. Now, with online TV and radio, SVT Play and podcasts, I follow what's going on in near real-time...such a difference.

  2. And Happy Midsummer!

  3. I remember thinking the same thing, but det blir helt naturligt at some point and you don't even notice. Or when you are having a conversation with two people one in english and one is swedish at the same time, that is a weird experience. Also I think when you start dreaming in that language is when it is fully integrated in your mind, although I usually dream in the language of whatever country I'm in. One time I dreamt of american friends all speaking perfect swedish, didn't seem weird in the dream and I could understand them perfectly. Finally pay attention to your minds voice, which do you speak? Thinking in swedish starts as soon as I start hearing others speak it around me like in the international terminal and on the plane but takes almost 4 days to start thinking exclusively. A good way to test yourself is to bump into a wall or hurt yourself, do you say "owww" or "ayyyyy", then you know. :)

  4. Oh Lord, I SO get this. I have one personality for my Swedish friends and a completely different way for my American. It increases in it's dynamic when I am actually one or the other country.

    My Swedish friends, as a general rule, do not discuss feelings, situations or anything else of a deep nature. I guess it has something to do with this need to be self-reliant and admission of such things is totally out of that catagory. In fact you will find them quickly running to the next room if one dares to speak of any weakness.

    Now my American friends are ALL about hugs, kisses and feelings - even if they are not really interested. They act interested...but then usually have a great gossip session at some later date. But in general everything is WONDERFUL, LOVELY, MARVELOUS..I would dare say my swedish friends would want to know what drug you are on to talk that way.

    So one straddles the center, fitting in where necessary!

  5. They are certainly two personalities that may or may not be trying to catch up with each other socially. Alas, the language plays a part in creating a logic that gets incorporated in the culture and therefore plays part in generating the persona. And the culture you're currently in also plays part in generating your behaviour, as the same act may be taken completely differently in the two different cultures.

    Fika in Swedish and you're social and normal. Do it in Norway, and you're a slacker. And then you have more subtle behavious where an action in Norway is about being polite is taken as being weak in parts of the USA.

    I want to write a more thorough reply on my blog when I get the time.

    @patrick I think I quit dreaming in languages all together. Now, everyone in my dreams communicate by telepathy.

  6. I think knowing different languages really opens up your world (and worldview), so your thoughts on this makes a lot of sense. I'm not surprised that it has become easier to slip in and out of your "two personas" depending on the primary language spoken of the group you're with :o) When one goes abroad, the first, strongest, link between people is a common language. That's why learning another language is so worth it :o)

  7. I've noticed this about myself speaking Spanish and English, and what's entertainingly frustrating now is that although I hardly speak any Swedish at all I'm dying to start growing my Swedish "personality". It's reassuring to know that your Swedish personality didn't spring up overnight, and it's okay if mine doesn't either. Somehow, we'll still make friends.

  8. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, whereas when in Malta...

    Sorry, I don't even know if we can post any links here, but this is just funny.

    @Trollsilm Yes! My dreams are telepathic too, soon they will have subtitles :P

  9. I don't speak Swedish, but I can swear in Swedish, English, Spanish and my native Portuguese and I can tell you that there are @#$%&* situations when each of these languages is better than the others...

  10. This is so true!! Problem is, you can't really explain this to people in an easily-grasping way so you're left feeling frustrated and sometimes malplacerad/out of place. I often have this feeling for quite some time when I return to Sweden from longer stints abroad (by longer I mean over six months). In a way this is a good thing, it shows that you probably adapted and sort of became a "part" of your foreign temporarily adopted country.

  11. in the olden days they thought bilingualism led to schizophrenia and discouraged people from learning other languages. it's very interesting to read everybody's interpretation of being multilingual!

  12. LOVED this post... My bf is South American and we recently returned back to the States from a trip to his motherland. And while on vacation I felt like I was suddenly dating someone else! In Spanish he was soooo funny (at least that's my assumption as all his friends were always laughing hysterically every time he said anything) and outgoing while here in the States he's so reserved, studious and serious. :)