'When in Rome, do as the Romans do' – perfect proverb or pain in the ass?

Posted on March 15, 2009 by yankeebean

yankeebeanI hear this phrase all the time.  ALL the time.  I even SAY this phrase all the time – but am I just shooting myself in the Ameri-foot?

A recent (not necessarily friendly) commenter touted this ol’ chestnut and it got me thinking.  Because I’ve chosen to permanently move to England, should I automatically adopt all of its ways and blendblendblend?

Should I do as the Romans do because I moved to Rome?

I did some research and found the general consensus about where this phrase originates and also found the most common translations (of which there are many).  Here’s a few:

  • When you’re elsewhere, then live as they live
  • When visiting a foreign land, follow the customs of those who live in it
  • Don’t set your own rules when you are someone’s guest

Yes, this is all pretty much par for the course.  But there’s a general theme here and that theme is ‘visiting’.  Although it wasn’t mentioned in every definition that I found, the majority of modern day translations referred to visiting a different culture and adopting their ways.

But I’m not visiting ‘Rome’, I moved to ‘Rome’ (also know as Yorkshire) permanently and I’ve lived here for over 6 years.  Does this phrase still apply to me?  Is it my responsibility to blend like magnolia every day from sun up to sun down?  To walk amongst the Brits undetected, without causing even the slightest stir?

God, I’m exhausted even THINKING about it…

While the above statement is (in keeping with my character) a little extreme – this is how it feels… At least on the tough-homesickness days.

But let’s revisit the above phrases and get to the bottom of why this phrase bugs me.

  • When you’re elsewhere, then live as they live
    • I live in a flat, I drink tea, I walk – not doing too badly on this one.  Not to mention (just being pedantic now) I breathe in and out which oxygenates the blood that is pumped around my body by my heart which makes me ‘live as they live’.
  • When visiting a foreign land, follow the customs of those who live in it
    • I’m not visiting – I live here.
  • Don’t set your own rules when you are someone’s guest
    • Not to be a broken record, but I’m not anyone’s guest – I live in England now, and I deeply suspect that I will for a very long time (maybe forever?)

If you’re reading this and getting cheesed off because I’m annoying you (don’t worry, I’m sure you’re not alone) – but stick with me for a minute here.

Think back to the last time you went to stay with very dear friend for just a little too long.  Now these aren’t just any people, these are people you love very much, people you want to spend lots of time with.  But after however long – 3 days, a week, two – things change.

Not because you like your friends any less, they’re still wonderful!  You’ve just been ‘doing as the Romans do’ for a little too long and you’re tired.  You want a rest, a rant, some space, YOUR space.  And not forever, just for a minute, just so you can recharge your batteries and return to your lovely friends fresh-faced and ready for a good time.

That’s why I don’t believe the phrase ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’ really applies to the expats.  It puts us in a bit of an impossible ‘pickle’… to use a ‘Roman’ expression.  ;)

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What Others Are Saying

  1. Blaire Allison, The Love Guru April 15, 2011 at 11:06 am

    Great topic, yet again. This is a great blog. I really enjoy it.

    I’m going through a different situation – he’s moving to America to be with me.
    I’m writing about it on my blog http://marryblaire.blogspot.com/ if you’d like to take a look and comment.

    I’ve been over here 3 times this year, for a month or more each and each time I come over I do find it is quite an adjustment that is filled with emotions – mostly frustration. But with that said, there are things I do like better about England.

    Hope you continue to post your experiences on here.
    I enjoy reading them and showing my fiance

    Blaire Allison
    Intuitive Heart Healer, The Love Guru
    http://www.loveguru.net

  2. GingerGirl May 5, 2010 at 9:47 am

    I always think to myself ‘When In Rome’ when I am having a little bit of a difficult time or when I am trying something new. The thing I have been struggling with a little is my vocabulary recently. The way I speak seems be so typically American and I have noticed myself using British slang more often, not thinking twice about using words like ‘lift’ and ‘uni.’ Even worse, I have picked up sayings (can’t be bothered!) and word syntax so that it just sounds more English. And every time I do, I feel just a little wobbly inside. I mean, I don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb, but as I hear the words coming out of my mouth, it just feels so unlike me, but when I think about it, it must seem completely unremarkable to anyone else. It is always a bizzare little moment.

    Generally however, I get a lot of comments from work colleagues about what a shame it would be for me to lose my “American-ness,” and every time I go to visit with my boyfriend’s parents, his father always tells me how glad he is that “the English weather hasn’t hampered your American disposition.” At first, I was really concerned about this, worried that they had pinned some sort of terrible amalgamation of sterotypes me, but after becoming closer to people at work, and asking my boyfriend, I realized that it was generally a compliment. They were telling me that they enjoyed my being optimistic, outgoing, a little bit forward and friendly. And I was just being true to who I was. So even as I realize things like my speech patterns, spelling and expectations of reasonable rent prices (oooooh, London real estate) are definitely continually evolving, it’s comforting to me that my personality traits that people here define as ‘American’ are, though perhaps a little different, very welcome.

    • yankeebean May 8, 2010 at 5:50 pm

      GingerGirl – I SO remember how it felt when UK slang started slipping in. I remember when I first moved here the word ‘cheers’ for ‘thank you’ used to drive me up the wall. I also hated ‘telly’ for ‘television’. But, sure enough, I’m ‘cheers’ing and ‘telly’ing constantly now and I don’t even bat an eyelid.

      I think there was also a transitional phase for my American friends who weren’t expecting me to say those things. They had to get used to the new lingo to :)

  3. Parakeet May 4, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    The British are probably always going to be able to pick out someone’s “foreignness” – no matter how long he or she has been in the UK. Accept and respect their customs and culture, but don’t try to lose yourself. You can reach a happy medium where you’re still yourself but you’re also “kind of British.” That’s how I learned to exist after a difficult time at first.

  4. Susan April 9, 2009 at 3:37 am

    Well, I live in an apartment, I drink tea, I walk – and I am an American living in Los Angeles. I do not own a car. So, not sure how that defines me really.

    Just be. You, like water, will find your level. You will always be American in some small way. I agree with the other poster – you cannot compare or you will always have a mental list in your head, blocking you.

    I have contemplated being an expat recently,but the homesickness is a factor…I moved from NY to LA and for ages it was a problem. It is never easy. You just have to let go and be.

    If it makes you feel any better, British people in the US get thrown totally out of whack by tipping at restaurants. Even when they’ve been here for ages. Such a small thing, but it’s like a stick in the spokes of their mental bike.

  5. yankeebean March 18, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    Stroppy Rachel -

    I’ve been thinking about this, and it changes with every minute and every day…

    But right now I miss ‘snowballing jokes’… Not jokes about snowballs, but the moments when a joke gets layered and layered by different people within a group until everyone is shouting over each other and laughing so hard they can’t breathe.

    That’s what I miss at this second… although I have proof that the English do this, too, because my neighbours keep me up sometimes with their ‘snowballing jokes’.

    When I get together with Peacefulyorkshire and Pacificyorkshire this always tends to happen – I guess it’s more to do with having close friends than what country you live in :)

  6. yankeebean March 18, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    Happy -

    I really enjoyed your comment and it’s given me food for thought, too… While I don’t agree with everything you’ve said, I definitely like the idea of ‘throwing yourself’ into a new culture and making a conscious effort to accept everything about your new home rather than measuring it up against your old one. My Mom always called it ‘blooming where you’re planted’ and I really like that idea.

    Thanks so much for stopping by! I’d love to hear your thoughts on future posts, so I hope you come back soon :)

  7. pacificyorkshirebird March 18, 2009 at 7:28 pm

    I too don’t feel like a guest here or that this country is my host. I was suprised by that comment a few weeks ago, not realising that some might still consider me a guest in their country.

    Happy – Thanks for reading! I think your comment was really thoughtful. I have wondered whether sometimes I have talked myself into being just a little too annoyed when things seem different.

    But then again, everytime I visit home I am reminded (by people saying outloud and also by subtle circumstances) how “British” I have become.

    I imagine there must come a time when an expat makes the choice either to go back to their home country for a while OR to adapt and assimilate as much as possible – embracing the new expat country.

    Perhaps, us three girls are sort of on that cusp? We’re also all in our late 20′s and making choices about our lives and careers that feel a bit more permanent than ever before. It is scary! And doing those things in a place where we feel a bit “out of place” makes it harder.

    So, for now we use this blog as a place to chat about however we might be feeling today. Maybe tomorrow we’ll feel a little different. And your comment gave me some food for thought. I’m really glad you found your own happiness – that’s what I want to do when I grow up. :)

  8. Happy March 18, 2009 at 1:31 am

    Peacefulyorkshire, 10 years ago I emigrated to Australia from England. My first few years here were very unhappy, so unhappy that I was very tempted to return “home”, despite the fact that my husband and children were very settled and content here. Part of my unhappiness was simple and very understandable homesickness, but part of it I caused myself – and this is why I am posting for the first time after reading your blog with interest for many months, because I feel you are making the same mistakes I made myself. For my first few years I compared everything – Australians were louder and more raucous than the English, the supermarkets were ten years behind in terms of stock and appearance, tv was dreadful, the countryside was dry and lifeless, the culture was ….well, what culture, the people, though superficially friendly, didnt ever engage, so that school gate acquiantances never became more than that. Most of my friends were fellow ex-pats. I realised I had to get a grip – so I remembered the old saying – comparisons are odious. I stopped comparing, threw myself into Australian life, learned to appreciate the loudness and joie de vivre of the Australians, gently eased away from moaning ex-pat friends, invited round practically everyone I met (they must have thought I was mad!) and stopped being so English. I am now blissfully happy, with many local friends. One final remark – if you are in a foreign country on holiday, no-one expects you to adapt – if you are staying permanently they do – and quite right too

  9. mct March 17, 2009 at 9:49 am

    @peacefulyorkshire: Oh, no, no…. it seems like you understood me totally wrong. I am probably more German than Scottish (something my father doesn’t like to hear… so pssst!), though I do like Irn Bru, baked beans, PG Tips and fish’n’chips… and those lovely cream crackers…. Wait, what was the topic again?
    But to answer your question: No, I never felt like I wouldn’t belong here. The only period of time I felt like I wouldn’t “fit” in was as a teenager. But which young adolescent had not this feeling? So, why should it feel disconcerting to me? I had a normal childhood.
    My father tried to teach us one simple lesson: “No one likes guests who misbehave!” You don’t need to give up your personality / identity. But you have to respect your host and won’t poke him with a knife in the eye, if you get the picture I’m drawing.

  10. peacefulyorkshire March 16, 2009 at 7:51 pm

    Fantastic post.
    I’ve been thinking about this idea all day…
    I have to agree that I do not feel like am a “guest” here in England as I live here now, nor do I feel like the English are my “hosts” (as one angry reader once implied to us ladies!). There is a different mentality when you are a guest as opposed to when you live here…
    To MCT (above), I can’t imagine growing up in an environment where your parents told you were a ” guest” in your own birthplace. I can imagine that felt really disconcerting? That implies that your childhood country of birth is not yours and that you don’t really have the right to “belong” or “fit in”. You still live there, do you still feel like a guest?

  11. mct March 16, 2009 at 10:30 am

    My Scottish father is now married for 40 years to my (German) mother. They started a family in Germany and they do still live in Germany.
    I was born and raised (spent my entire life) in Germany, I’ve got the British and German citizenship, but there is one thing my father told me and my siblings that I will never forget: “We are guests in this country, don’t forget that!” It isn’t likely that I’m going to leave Germany to live in the UK, but this is something I’ll always remember and will be keeping in the back of my mind.
    So, yes I do believe in this “In Rome, do as the Romans” stuff to a certain extent.

  12. Stroppy Rachel March 16, 2009 at 9:05 am

    What do you miss being able to do?

  13. notfromaroundhere March 15, 2009 at 11:24 am

    I love this. I tried too hard to fit in when I first moved here, and now have found a sort of happy medium where I try not to upset people but also try to not bury my personality or my American self. But it’s a constant worry to what extent this sort of “do as the Romans do” statement applies. You can’t actually change your entire persona overnight just because you’ve physically relocated, and the richness of diversity gets lost if you try too hard to conform. I like the American model where there are little pockets of interesting ethnic neighborhoods where the “old country” represents even though people are in America–go to Greektown in Detroit or any of the numerous Chinatowns across the US.

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