Foreignness, France and neurodiversity

I’ve been thinking about how my experience of foreignness relates to my neurodivergence. ADHD brains thrive on dopamine and I spent nine years in Paris, the dopamine capital of France. The Metro map was like a colourful board game to explore, offering new rewards whenever I threw the dice. Anonymity gave me the freedom to be myself. But there was more to it than that.

Officially, my first experience of foreignness was at the age of 16 when wanderlust took me from my native Yorkshire to Auvergne for an AFS home-stay programme. At the pre-departure orientation we were advised that the best way to integrate successfully was to “observe and copy”. This already came naturally to me. I had felt foreign long before I left home and had been honing my intercultural skills since before my first words. Although masking had come at a cost.

Exposing my foreignness to the light removed the trauma of masking. Defined by my difference, I no longer needed to hide it. Quirks were easily excused and misunderstandings were because I was British, not broken. If I drifted off mid-conversation, I could ask for clarification rather than look for clues to retrospectively decipher the information. I could ask for help rather than wallow in shame.

I have been asked if France is inclusive for neurodivergent people. It’s an interesting question. In the hundreds of diversity reports I have translated the word has not appeared once. And yet in some ways France was a perfect fit for my brain. Despite the language barrier, understanding the world around me and my place in it was easier there.

Friends and colleagues always said what they meant. The French have one word for “no”. In the UK, where the official language is euphemism, synonyms include “maybe”, “something to consider”, “I’m not sure”, “that’s an interesting suggestion” and many more.

In France the choreography of greetings is simple. A kiss on the cheek for a friend, a handshake for a stranger. In the UK options include a hug, a kiss, a handshake, an awkward smile, a wave and a foot shuffle…often resulting in a clumsy combination in a weird disjointed dance.

In France interactions with retail assistants are polite but pragmatic. In Yorkshire jokes are a key aspect of the retail experience. Switching to humour whilst grappling with my shopping list and the sensory onslaught of a supermarket is like changing from first to fourth gear without touching the accelerator. Social pressure and bonhomie stalls my flow.

In the workplace well defined job roles, organisational structures and workers’ rights eased pressure on my executive function. Luncheon vouchers and subsidised transport passes helped me to budget. The commitment to work-life balance prevented burnout.

I hope French employers join the conversation on neurodiversity. I think they have a lot to contribute.

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