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Indentity Crisis | Flight and Return - CS EN


Analysis of the cultural shock of a British student that will be constantly reminded of her foreigner status while trying to integrate in Switzerland.

Identity crisis: flight and return

The background situation and events for the identity crisis or self-shock described below occurred over a period of several years and cover a growing realisation of difficulties and a reaction, triggered by one event. In some respects, the situation described here reflects that experienced and described by D. Kondo1, but while the flight reaction is the same, the final outcome is different.



The main actor is me: at the time of the events a young graduate in French and Library Science working the Lausanne University Library. Other actors: Swiss colleagues, student friends from around the world in Lausanne 1980-1983, and family and friends in England and Wales.


Background and context

My parents emigrated from Ireland to England upon their marriage and reared their four children in an exclusively English-speaking environment, with no exposure to countries other than Ireland, England and Wales. I studied French at the university for four years including 10 months in Grenoble which were my first months abroad in a different language environment. Compared to my later experience in Lausanne, the time in Grenoble was of fixed duration, in a study environment and it encouraged me to live outside the monolingual environment in which I had grown up.

Upon graduation, therefore, I sought work in a French-speaking environment and in September 1980 began work in Lausanne. Apart from 2 weeks in England in December 1980, I remained in Switzerland (with short visits to France and Italy) for the next 2 years. I maintained contact with parents and friends through letters and the occasional (expensive) telephone call – in English, with short visits from family. Otherwise, I jumped whole-heartedly into a French-speaking environment: reading material was in French, as was contact with colleagues, report writing, cinema, theatre, church and sport. My initial goal was to improve my French-language skills, oral and written, and to be accepted as an equal interlocutor by colleagues and friends, foreign and Swiss: French was the lingua franca, also among the foreign students who, unlike me, were generally staying for a shorter and defined period.

The context of the time (1980-1983) facilitated this immersion: expensive phone charges limited direct contact, as did the high cost of plane travel. As a young employee, I had a low salary and short holidays, making travel more difficult (and I used my free time to travel in Switzerland, France and Italy). Television channels were in French or German (no satellite TV), most films in the cinema were dubbed not sub- titled, the Internet for the public did not exist, and imported books and newspapers in  English were expensive. Friends and family made short visits so contact was maintained but the major influences were Swiss(-French), and I tried to become what I saw as fully integrated and adapt to my new environment. This was facilitated in part by my French-sounding name, my age (22 when arriving) and inexperience: moving from a student environment in Wales to a work environment in Lausanne, I had no experience or point of reference and comparison to make with renting flats, paying taxes etc and life in the workplace. Overall, in the first months, I felt enthusiastic, confident, even euphoric in my new – independent – life, in which there was the added benefit of not being compared to siblings and family, of creating my own identity. Colleagues praised my linguistic skills and ability to conform to the Swiss way of life.



This „honeymoon‟ phase lasted about 18 months but as time passed, I became increasingly ill-at-ease: renewal of the work permit and its attendant anxieties given the prevailing attitudes at the time in the Lausanne „office des étrangers‟ underlined my provisional status as a foreigner despite my initial sense of integration, as did difficulties in attempts to change apartments – and the realization that with a B permit, there were strict restrictions on place of work. In addition there came the realisation that, while in many respects indistinguishable from the Swiss even when speaking, I did not have the same status as my colleagues: despite repeated discussion, my „foreign‟ degree was not recognized and I would not be eligible for promotion or a raise in salary.

Irritability and negativism began to predominate, as well as a sense of unreality: at times I felt as though I were on a stage and that „real‟ life was taking place elsewhere – perhaps in England, maybe Wales but not in Lausanne. Speaking French suddenly seemed artificial and increased the feeling of role playing. When a letter from a Welsh friend (and former student in French at the same university) arrived pointing out that I was no longer writing „English‟ but a mixture of English and French in a French-language structure, I felt that I was losing hold and was not „myself‟ anymore. I experienced rising anxiety and stress: I was not Swiss, but I was no longer at ease in my native language and my previous environment and felt an increasing lassitude. Shortly afterwards I fell ill with what was diagnosed as glandular fever and during my convalescence period spent a long time debating the merits and disadvantages of „fight or flight‟.

After discussion with my employer and family, I organized a return to Wales to carry out a further course of study for one year: my ambivalence about leaving was apparent (or my fear of moving to another new environment) since I did not seek work in the UK but planned a transition time that I hoped would enable me to decide on my future and where it would lie. It was notable that work colleagues and Swiss friends were surprised at my decision and expressed astonishment since in their view I had become „one of them‟, while many of the foreign short-term student residents were surprised I had managed to stay for nearly three years.



a) Representations, values, standards, conceptions and prejudices, reference framework

Choosing to leave the UK, I could be seen as reacting against my initial group and seeking out in my eyes (at the time) a more valid or valuable social group: after being brought up in a somewhat closed environment (traditional Catholic upbringing, little travel, no contact with non-English or Irish until age 20) I cut myself off physically, linguistically and culturally from family, and reference framework, and attempted to adopt a completely new group. In my desire to be accepted and my insecurity as a young adult, I suppressed my individuality and adapted to the groups in which I moved.

In part this was a learned reaction and reflection of my upbringing: as an Irish family in England, we were encouraged to stifle our roots and become English (although my mother always spoke of Dublin as „home‟) since the tensions of the time made it difficult to valorize one‟s Irish heritage. Consciously or not (more unconsciously), I tried to create a new identity (cf. Cesari Lusso –p.6) in an environment in which I would not be seen with reference to family (as the sister, as the daughter etc.) but in my own right (and maybe not as English).

In this respect, I rejected a multiplicity of roles and immersed myself into a new “Swiss” identity. I actively sought not to move in the English-speaking community, feeling that it would restrict my acclimatization2. In effect, I tried to suppress my identity in my quest for my „new‟ identity. Initially, this seemed to be successful, in part because many of the Swiss values and standards were similar (northern European work ethic, time-bound, respectful of rules), but in the longer term the attempted suppression of my „non-Swiss‟ aspects – notably English - became untenable. As Cesari Lusso (p.9) indicates:

Chaque individu est profondément enraciné dans sa propre culture.

My attempt to suppress my cultural references led to identity stress and cultural decentration.


b) Representations, values, standards, conceptions and prejudices, reference framework of others

The reference framework and cultural context of Switzerland in the early 1980s were closed. Integration in the sense of becoming Swiss to the point of abandoning one‟s own cultural background was perceived as a positive action and encouraged at least tacitly, and often overtly, especially when renting, in interaction with the Office des étrangers or other offices. The work week was 44 hours, with 3 weeks‟ holiday per year and a work ethic that encouraged staff to stay overtime, to fight any illness and not to criticise management or structure.

While the university environment was more tolerant of difference, the overall approach was to expect the incomers to adapt in all ways to Swiss practices and way of life if they were planning to stay. Students staying on a short-term basis were not expected to achieve this level of conformity but neither did they achieve much contact with the Swiss: it was once explained to me that there was no point making an effort to know foreign students because a) they did not conform b) they would leave very soon and the „investment‟ would be wasted.


c)  Dimensions of identity that were ‘menaced’

At different stages, all 4 components of a feeling of identity defined by Codol (1981), could be seen as being „menaced‟, either by my actions or the situation:

  1. Feeling of difference: consciousness of self as distinct, unique, different.
    By immersing myself in the Swiss-French environment at the expense of my own culture, I sought a type of conformity that ultimately menaced my sense of self and uniqueness
  2. Feeling of permanence, continuity: perception of self-identical to self despite the diversity of self- representations, a multiplicity of roles, status and belonging.
    Again, by cutting myself from my cultural references and immersing myself in the  French language and Swiss-French environment, I initially menaced my own sense of identity permanence.
  3. Feeling of one‟s own coherence: need to reduce discordant cognitive elements in order to ensure a feeling of unity.
    Initially, I suppressed my differences – especially the linguistic aspects - in order to assimilate into Swiss life but longer term this menaced my own coherence and produced stress and alienation.
  4. Valorization.
    Taking valorization in Codol‟s sense of having a certain power over one‟s material and social environment, the sense that one can influence things and people, direct or master events at least partially, to create a positive self-image, I felt a loss of valorization in that I conformed to the image of colleagues and acquaintances, was unable to change my professional status given my non-Swiss qualifications.


d)  Strategies

My initial strategy was to retreat: first (unconsciously) through illness and then back to the known environment of the university. The illness was treated purely on a bio-medical level, excluding the psycho- social or cultural aspects which I did not articulate as factors at the time: as indicated earlier the norm in Switzerland was to conform and adjust, and while there may have been recognition that migrant workers might have difficulties to adjust this reasoning was not applied to university educated  white  collar Northern Europeans.

This retreat accompanied by an attempt to find a strategy for the future, also on the part of the employer, who gave me leave of absence for a year even though B permit status did not allow absences from Switzerland of more than 2 months. The reasons given and accepted for leaving were for continuing education, not cultural difficulties. One year later, I returned to Lausanne to work and live but with other strategies: seeking a better balance of language and community, understanding that it was not necessary (nor advisable) to renounce my past life and language – my roots - in order to be live in a different culture.

Additionally, my employer recognised the additional diploma and sought to incorporate my knowledge of English also encouraging me to represent the library outside Switzerland and use it in the international environment. This strategy valorized another component of myself that I had previously attempted to minimise.

There were other cultural conflicts and difficulties over the next years but the feeling of „being on stage‟ and unreality that was so disorienting at the end of my first phase of life in Lausanne did not return. I felt that I was able to conciliate the two (or more) worlds, recognising that my language abilities would be influenced by contact with other languages, and by my absence from an English-speaking environment3 but that the process could be seen as positive.


e)  ‘Intergroup’ processes

Taking the elements of social identity outlined in the working document, based on Tajfel,
‘Théorie de l’identité sociale:

  1. Les individus tentent d'accéder à (ou de maintenir) une identité sociale positive.
  2. L'identité sociale positive est basée, pour une large part, sur les comparaisons favorables qui peuvent être faites entre le groupe d'appartenance et certains autres groupes pertinents. Le groupe doit être perçu comme positivement différencié ou distinct des autres groupes pertinents.
  3. Lorsque l'identité sociale est insatisfaisante, les individus tentent soit de quitter leur groupe pour rejoindre un groupe plus positif, et/ou de rendre leur groupe distinct dans un sens positif.
    D'après Tajfel, H. & Turner J.C., The social identity of intergroup behaviour in S. Worchel & W.G. Austin (Eds), Psychology of intergroup relations, Nelson-Hall, 1986.


it could be argued that, dissatisfied with my social identity or group having what I perceived as a restricted background in which we were encouraged to suppress our links to Ireland, I formed a positive stereotype of other groups, particularly other countries, and sought by language and cultural immersion to join a new group with a more positive identity. The regulated nature of Swiss life and work made the group feel safe and positive at first and the structure was appealing to a young person living on her own for the first time.

If we take the view of the „Swiss group‟ of the early 1980s the pressure was for incomers to the group to conform to a much greater extent than today, with the „reward‟ of being accepted into the society and seeing in reflection a positive social identity. However, the moment of „shock‟ concerning the native language highlighted the underlying difficulties surrounding this new social identity and gave the impetus to leave.

Retours réflexifs (introspectifs) : qu’est -ce que cette démarche d’analyse d’un récit de « choc   identitaire » vous apprend sur les processus psychologiques en jeu en situation interculturelle et sur vos propres mécanismes?


Reflecting on the events and actions surrounding this experience, and through the readings and the course, the following processes may be identified:

  •    Perception of the other cultural environment and group as superior therefore attempting to join
  •    Thus, initial attempts at conforming to new social norms, but creating a feeling of disintegration
  •    Leading to difficulty recognising oneself, a feeling of fragmentation, of becoming foreign to oneself
  •    Thus attacking one‟s sense of identity with a conflict between the internal self/self representation and the social identity or roles.
  •    But at the same time, the feeling of self is defined and constructed by one‟s cultural context and identity develops across this cultural journey


The trigger for the „identity shock‟ was the language. As Py (1998) writes:

« Le langage occupe une place centrale dans les changements qui marquent la vie quotidienne du migrant. Il est à la fois objet, outil, vecteur, reflet. Il doit être appris, il permet de survivre et de s’intégrer, il rattache au passé, il conduit vers de nouvelles connaissances, il donne un sens à la nouveauté, il contribue à la création de nouvelles formes de culture du quotidien. »

However, many of the many of the difficulties experienced were not only linked to an intercultural situation in terms of migration to another country but also intracultural. A young adult moving from home or university to a work environment, managing one‟s independence and relative freedom, deciding one‟s adult identity could also experience some of the same „threats‟ to identity and sense of otherness independently of a move to another country.

Considering the question of otherness as a threat to avoid, or a chance to develop I would concur with Cesari Lusso (2000, p. 3) citing an earlier work:

« Un nombre important de travaux (par exemple, Emiliani & Bastianoni, 1993 ; Pourtois & Desmet, 2000 ; Tap, 1988) permettent aujourd’hui de mettre en évidence le rôle mobilisateur et constructeur, qu’à des conditions données, peut jouer la difficulté dans l’évolution de la personne. Un équilibre entre défis et ressources qui accompagnent le parcours de vie des sujets constitue une de ces conditions centrales (Cesari Lusso, 1997). »

Following my return to Switzerland in 1984, I tried to adopt other mechanisms than retreat in the form of illness and flight, as indicated above under d) to find that balance between challenges and resources.

In terms of the three models of integration cited by Cesari Lusso (2000), I might categorize myself has having a „modèle interne d‟intégration pluriface : marquee par l‟idée de multi-intégration‟ characterized by a strong integration in Switzerland and Swiss group identity, but also links to England – and to Ireland. However, contrary to the young second-generation migrants described by Cesari Lusso (2000), who are faced with the sometimes humiliating naturalisation procedures, I was privileged to receive my passport through marriage without the necessity to give up my other passport(s), and this may also facilitate my strong ties.

I am aware through contacts and the experience of others that my path to acculturation was facilitated by a number of factors: work environment, nationality (in the eyes of Swiss an Irish/English migrant was more „acceptable‟ than southern migrants – perhaps also a factor of numbers of immigrants) plus linguistic knowledge on arrival. My identity shock indeed could be considered minor compared to that experienced by refugees or those without the chance to leave. I recognise that despite the difficulties encountered; I was privileged to have the possibility work immediately upon my arrival and to be able to take a step back after the initial three years in Switzerland and to review my choices – and to have those choices – on the road to evolving personal and social identity.