Social group chameleon

I’m an itinerant member of society… living in France for three years recently became 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 very often. 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 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 when I try to adapt to everywhere I go as much as possible. I wouldn’t say I have any desire to ‘go native’, 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 though – 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 though, 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 in-group aversion built inside me 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. At the same time 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 of 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 the mistake would be made. I think I get on well in nearly all new situations I find myself in because I accept them as they are and try to make the most of them for myself by adapting my own behaviour.  At least I think I do, perhaps I should ask the group members whose space I’ve invaded!


Hmmm, that’s interesting. Let me compare notes here. I’ll need to say a couple of things about myself. I come from an extremely stable social environment. I, my parents, my grandparents and their parents were all born in the same region of Italy (Emilia Romagna). Of my classmates in high school, I am the only one living more than 30 kms away from the school building. I moved out of town during university; I lived a couple of years in the UK in 1990s; went back to Italy to be in a band, but ended up relocating to Milano in 2001; moved to France last year, and  now I am planning my next move - Brussels, two months from now. So, where I come from, I am seen as very restless.

Here is where similarities end. I don’t really recognize myself in the attitude of “oh, well, anything goes”. Adaptation is clearly a big part of it. But for me, in order to live a happy and meaningful life, there is another part, and that is impact: being part of some kind of project that the community where I live has for itself. I like to express this saying that, when I live in a city, ideally I would want to know the mayor personally. “Knowing the mayor” stands for being in dialog with the place and its people, recognized as a member of the community (albeit a weird one with a foreign surname) and somebody the community itself can work with. I phantasize of moving to some small town in the south of Italy with a platoon of nerds and tech people and connect it (the town) to flows of conversation, projects, and company-founding that it had not previously been a part of.

It goes back to the light/heavy dichotomy of Kunderanian fame, I guess. Trouble is, “heavy” people like me tend to stay still. Heavy people moving about is somewhat new, and we have not quite figured it out yet.

And I would called you a 2FACED1, a new type of person who’s identity is more fluid due to the new conditions  we now live by!

I’d love to see that

I’d love to see Malcolm here get the 2Faced1 treatment :slight_smile:

i have no problem at all being a 2faced1 - but I’m not sure i’m very visually a chameleon! the irony would be my one would probably be a perma-person set in stone… which would be nice sometimes when trying to make decisions!

Good relationships -> belonging -> adaptation

Hi Malcolm, it’s actually kind of great to find out this about you, because I’ve met you offline a couple times and indeed you seem to be very warm and relaxed, and a thoughtful listener, which not so many people can do when they’re talking to others they’d barely met.

Regarding this adaptation and the connection between who I come from and who I am:

  1. I tend to reasonate with what Alberto is saying, I cannot live somewhere if there’s no real feeling of belonging, or I don’t understand the less belonging to so many places. I’ve lived for 5 months in Genova as a student and really, that was one of the most contradictory periods of my life. If there were no real bonds forming, and couldn’t get through the language barrier (I wasn’t speaking Italian at all when I arrived), I found there was really no point trying too hard to adapt.

  2. at one point after you travel a lot, staying for longer periods in diverse places, you get a sort of cultural immunity, I mean you know how much you can show of your native self, when and to whom, depending of the interactions and of the potential of new relationships.  At least that’s what happens when I’m a newcomer, I subconscously make a calculus and I know how is best to let myself be perceived by others in terms of identity… Probably I’m not the only one doing it. So in a way I’m a chameleon, but only when it comes to revealing my identity. When I have to blend in different settings, now that’s a different story, I may be even incompetent at that…

Thanks Malcolm, it was a pleasure reading you!

meaning to belonging

  1. i think there’s definitely meaningful and meaningless group participation, although i really find that is true wherever you are and who you manage to meet or mix with. i have had experiences like you describe in italy, but i must say i think 5 months, unless you are amazingly sociable or super-lucky, is really short to establish these bonds, and my similar experiences to yours are also short - 6 months, 11 months, and another 11 months. it definitely isn’t easy to connect, and that takes effort, and almost certainly some degree of comfort with the language.

  2. i don’t really understand what you mean by your identity? i wouldn’t feel comfortable describing one identity i could apply to myself… i think my identity is different in most situations. perhaps that is the cultural immunity you describe, but i think it more depends on which parts of yourself you choose to use to make connections with others. wow, that’s hard to describe! japan probably helps me find examples, contrary to your ideas i often felt very at home in japan. there were cultural practices that resonated with me personally - understatedness, unspoken feelings and emotions that lead to real closeness when you realise they are communicated to you and vice versa. nearly all my relationships in japan were extremely subtle, but very heartfelt. you have to be a listener in most interactions. there must be some compatibility with some of my core identities which makes these experiences some of the longest lasting (I expect!) I certainly love the Japanese football team!


I forgot to ask about Tokyo, was it so easy to camuflate there? :P  Are you left with great, longterm relationships as well, or rather  spontaneous, circumstantial ones?