Bridging the cultural gap : Interviews of a Tunisian teenager with a French psychologist

Author: Florence Halder
Speaker: Florence Halder
Topic: Anthropological Linguistics
COMELA 2022 General Session


What is a Psychologist? This question comes up in each of my consultations as a clinical psychologist with people coming from countries where this profession is totally or almost non-existent. Translating this term therefore often poses problems for interpreters.

We will focus here on consultations with a Tunisian unaccompanied minor, who came to France in 2011 during the Arab Spring ; interviews were conducted with an Arab Tunisian-French interpreter. Explaining what a psychologist is and what she/he is meant for, required us to search for an appropriate term in history and medical anthropology.

The profession of a “psychologist”, like that of a “psychiatrist”, was established in many countries during colonization: it refers to a whole set of conceptions of the body, the mind, health and disease imposed by the authoritarian regime of the invaders. Psychological concepts were even used in the service of the colonial regime to justify it, colonized populations being described as inferior with little self-control, intellectually deficient and infantile, unable to emancipate themselves from the beneficient guardianship of the settlers.

Moreover, consulting a “psychologist” usually involves indulging in a way of talking about oneself and one’s emotions: but people are more or less comfortable in such situations depending on their gender, social class, but also according to their cultural origins. Dwelling on one’s feelings is often perceived as egocentric, in other cultural spaces except in Europe and in North America. Thus explaining the term “psychologist” during the first consultation with this unaccompanied minor was a prelude to inviting him to express but also therefore to experience his suffering in a way that was unfamiliar to the Tunisian teenager. As in any therapeutic process, this therapeutic setting allowed him to socialize his suffering, in a way which was till then alien to him.

Talking about feelings and thoughts can be even more complicated when people come from a country subject to a dictatorial regime like Ben Ali’s Tunisia where expressing one’s idea is dangerous. Thus in such consultations, verbalizing can only be done with some adjustments: it is essential to remain attentive to paraverbal communication, to decode properly what the patient is trying to communicate.

In this context, the psychologist and the patient coming from each side of the Mediterranean gradually over the course of sessions, develop a mutual understanding, on ways of uttering, but also of suffering and healing, both inventing and learning new manners of interacting as well as of living.

Keywords: Tunisian teenager, French psychologist, cultural gap