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.

Why I don’t want sausage and beans every Tuesday

As a child I loved to go to my friend Jennifer’s house for dinner. One of the reasons was the family’s meal schedule with specific meals on specific days. Every Tuesday was sausage and beans, Wednesday was fishfingers and chips and so on. This blew my mind and made me question the spontaneous eating habits of my family. For us, every day was different. Were we weird? But, as much as I loved the novelty, the thought of my parents implementing this kind of regime forever made me shudder. I have always been simulataneously allergic to routines and in awe of those who implement them.

How does this relate to translation?

The received wisdom in the translation industry is that specialisation is crucial. Specialising allows you to make economies of scale, translating more content in less time and making more money. You can also target your marketing efforts towards your ‘ideal client’. And, of course, you gain the satisfaction of becoming an expert in a particular topic. In short, it makes you a better, more successful translator.

Believe me I get it. Like most conventional productivity tips the theory makes perfect sense.

And yet, in my 12 years as a freelance translator I have struggled to implement this advice and could not always relate to my colleagues’ experience. Perhaps this meant I wasn’t a good translator or that I was doomed to failure? Maybe there was something wrong with me.

Since my ADHD diagnosis I understand that I work differently because my brain works differently. Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder is a misnomer. Those of us with ADHD do not suffer from a defecit of attention but from inconsistent attention due to low dopamine levels. We can actually target our attention extremely effectively in certain situations. This is known as ‘hyperfocus’ and is when we do our best work.

One of the keys to achieving this degree of focus is novelty and challenge. Researching new topics fires up my neurones in a way that nothing else does. It turns my brain into a dog with a linguistic bone. Routine and repetition has the opposite effect, sending it off for a fireside nap.

Of course, I do have particular areas of interest and expertise. I love to get my teeth into French employment and social affairs since the topic is vast and constantly evolving. As a history graduate, if you ask me to translate a text on the Normans I will bite your hand off.

I do know my limits and if you need some nuclear power plant specs translating I will happily refer you to a colleague.

But I could no more work on the same texts every day than I could eat sausages and beans every Tuesday. So, if you have a niche document I would love to take on the challenge. If it’s my first time working on the subject I will research it extensively. If I have any questions I will ask. If I can’t translate it myself I will refer you to someone who can.

Atypical tips

My recent posts have focussed on ADHD “superpowers” and how they help me to be a better translator. In the next series of posts I want to discuss some of the strategies I use to make me healthier and more productive.

First some background. Why do we struggle? ADHD is a neurodevelopmental which affects our executive function, the brain’s operating system. In addition to the stereotypical symptoms commonly associated with the condition, we might struggle with working memory, managing time, sequencing and prioritising.

We tend to be creative, highly adaptable and excel in crisis situations. This is why so many people with ADHD thrive in the emergency services. I do some of my best work when I’m asked to deliver a last-minute job. But I struggle with the behind-the-scenes stuff: routine tasks, planning, business development and admin.

This doesn’t mean that your colleagues with ADHD will always be late and drop the ball. They probably have multiple strategies in place to make sure this doesn’t happen. For example, I hate being late and am always 20 minutes early for meetings. The only person whose time gets wasted is me!

But our efforts can take a toll on our well-being. Implementing simple, streamlined strategies that do not place excessive demand on our executive function is essential for a healthy work-life balance.

This means that the best tools are the ones that are fun and simple to use. Isn’t that what everyone wants? Indeed, just like most accommodations, these tools don’t just benefit the target demographic – they help everyone. A ramp may be fitted to facilitate access for wheel-chair users, but it has the added benefit of making a service accessible to parents with pushchairs and commuters with wheelie suitcases. In the same vein I hope my tips will help you whether you are neurodivergent or not.

When struggling with a poorly designed product I have often fantasised about being on an ADHD consumer panel. If you want a user-friendly solution to a problem just ask someone with ADHD.

Many of these tools and strategies are a response to my own unique challenges but many are inspired by some great women. Here are some of the resources I rely on the most:

❤ In her Youtube channel, How to ADHD, Jessica McCabe offers some great tips for thriving with ADHD.

❤Tracy Otuska’s podcast, ADHD for Smart Ass Women, Tracy Otsuka is a refreshingly positive exploration of our “strengths, symptoms and workarounds”.

❤ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life is written by an ADHD specialist and a professional organiser and offers original practical tips for organising your home, work and finances.

❤Corinne McKay is a translator and trainer. Her books and courses are not targeted at an ADHD audience but her simple, bite-sized approach to marketing suits my brain perfectly! If you need to market your business, but hate it, Corinne is for you.

How my ADHD superpowers help me to help my clients

Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (trouble déficitaire de l’attention avec hyperactvité – TDAH) is a neurological condition which affects dopamine levels in the brain. Those of us with ADHD (and society at large) tend to focus on the difficulties this causes: fidgetting, talking too much, losing things, being easily distracted.

It doesn’t help that it is poorly named. We do not suffer from a deficit of attention, rather from irregular and inconsistent attention. Once our attention is on something we are interested in we become hyperfocussed. We are oblivious to the world around us and obsessive about the task at hand. This is our superpower. This is what happens to me when I am working on a translation or editing job. The house could be on fire and I would still be at my laptop searching for the perfect word.

Another aspect of my ADHD is a complete aversion to complicated, long-winded or ambigious explanations. I need people to get to the point! There is nothing worse for me than wading through a long instruction manual.

This is the reason I love editing and why I’m very good at it. When I’m editing a document I become hyperfocussed on the text. I HAVE to make it clear. My brain won’t tolerate anything less. Every word must serve a purpose. There is no room for ambiguity. I will not rest until your document conveys the message you want it to convey.

The world would be a poorer place without neurodivergent brains. I long for the day when we celebrate our contributions to our communities and workplaces. With that in mind, here are the names of a few entrepreneurs and leaders who have (or are thought to have had) ADHD. Maybe you have heard of them?

Jamie Oliver
Bill Gates
Heston Blumenthal 
Richard Branson
John F Kennedy
Winston Churchill
Abraham Lincoln

I’m sad to say that, whilst I found many examples of successful female sportstars and actresses with ADHD, I couldn’t find any entrepreneurs or leaders. Perhaps it is because it is much more difficult for women to be diagnosed with ADHD. The diagnostic process is heavily biased towards males and ADHD presents differently in us. Plus, our social conditioning means we tend to be very good at hiding our traits.

Neurodivergent girls deserve role models too. I’m making my mission to identify and celebrate them!

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