What It Really Means When You’re a “Fish Out of Water”

Have you ever felt like a fish plucked from its comfortable, familiar bowl and plopped onto dry land? This disorienting and stressful experience is captured perfectly by the idiomatic phrase “fish out of water.” When someone describes themselves or another as a “fish out of water,” it paints a vivid picture of floundering in unfamiliar territory. Understanding the origin and meaning behind this common saying can help illuminate why we use it.

The Origins of “Fish Out of Water”

The “fish out of water” idiom dates back centuries, with some of the earliest documented uses found in 17th century British literature. Playwright Francis Beaumont appears to be one of the first to publish the phrase in his 1607 tragicomedy The Knight of the Burning Pestle.

In the centuries since, “fish out of water” has become a ubiquitous way to convey the discomfort and awkwardness of being outside one’s element. Just as fish rely biologically on water to breathe and survive, people tend to thrive in environments that align with their preferences, personalities, and abilities.

Feeling Like an Outsider

Being a fish out of water usually describes the experience of not fitting in culturally or socially within a particular situation. For example, an extroverted person may feel out of place attending a quiet poetry reading. An American visiting Brazil might struggle to communicate without knowing Portuguese.

Some common scenarios that can trigger a fish out of water feeling include:

  • Attending an event for a subculture you don’t identify with
  • Being the only person of a certain race, gender, or background in a group
  • Traveling to a country with different cultural norms
  • Starting a job in an industry you’re unfamiliar with
  • Enrolling as the new student at school mid-year

In cases like these, customs, conversations, and even expectations can make a person feel isolated and outside mainstream culture. It’s often challenging to find a sense of belonging when nothing is familiar.

Being plunged into a new social or cultural environment means having to navigate unfamiliar waters. Things that were once effortless now require conscious thought and energy. Communicating, making friends, even accomplishing daily tasks can become disorienting.

Sudden immersion in a foreign setting also highlights differences that make you stand out rather than fit in. When you’re the only one who doesn’t understand slang or pop culture references, it’s easy to feel like an outsider. Well-intentioned curiosity about an unfamiliar culture can also inadvertently cause offense.

The sheer exhaustion that comes from constant overstimulation and unfamiliarity contributes to fish out of water feelings too. There’s no autopilot option to fall back on in novel contexts. Every interaction requires active focus and interpretation.

Failure to Adapt

Another key aspect of feeling like a fish out of water involves struggling to adapt to new or changing circumstances. Moving to a foreign country without learning local manners, for example, can amplify the sensation of floundering outside your element.

Rigidity comes into play here too. People who insist a new environment conform to their way of doing things will likely feel more out of water compared to those with flexible mindsets. Adaptability and openness to learning give fish better “swimming” abilities on land.

Common scenarios where rigidity exacerbates fish out of water feelings include:

  • Resisting new technologies or workflows at a job
  • Refusing to update offensive terminology or behaviors
  • Insisting on cooking cuisine from your homeland instead of trying new foods
  • Sticking strictly to your hometown customs after moving somewhere new

Of course, balancing adaptation with retaining your sense of self is ideal. But complete stubbornness and inflexibility make it essentially impossible to thrive in new ponds.

Rigid people often reject input and advice from locals that could help them adjust. They may dismiss traditions or practices in the new culture as wrong rather than just different. This judgmental attitude prevents learning and growth.

Additionally, rigid people tend to isolate themselves among transplants from their homeland. While this provides familiarity and comfort, it limits opportunities to engage with the local population and learn norms.

Adaptability requires humility. Being open to asking questions and making mistakes is essential for a fish to thrive on new land. People who think they have nothing to learn will flounder.

The Biological Fish Perspective

The fish side of this idiom warrants examination too. People specifically invoke fish for a reason when using this saying.

For starters, most species of fish have gills that extract oxygen from water, rather than lungs for breathing air. A fish on land unable to get oxygen essentially suffocates. Their bodies and movements are also optimized for water, not dry ground. Gravity works against them, and without water buoying them up, fish experience distress flopping around awkwardly.

A fish plopped onto land also becomes easy prey with no way to swim away. And with no access to food, they will starve outside their aqueous habitat. Simply put, fish physiologically cannot survive long outside the water environment they evolved in.

This provides helpful context for why culturally “fish out of water” refers to extreme discomfort and inability to thrive. Fish stranded on land face an existential crisis!

Interestingly, some fish demonstrate more adaptability to land than others. Mudskippers, walking catfish, and lungfish can extract oxygen from air and move around on land for short periods. Their anatomy gives them marginally better odds for survival than fish restricted to water.

In the same way, humans have varying degrees of flexibility when plunged into new environments. Factors like open-mindedness, prior intercultural experiences, and comfort with uncertainty determine how well we adapt.

But even the hardiest fish reaches critical limits on land. Without intervention, the situation remains dire. This reminds us that anyone, no matter their adaptability, needs support to feel at home in drastically foreign elements.

Feeling like a fish out of water is rarely pleasant. But there are strategies to ease the discomfort and get back into a comfortable environment.

First, adjust your expectations. Accept that outsider discomfort is often part of the process adapting to new cultures and situations. Be patient with yourself.

Next, focus on learning, observing, and trying to understand differences rather than just judging them. Curiosity and asking questions open doors to belonging.

Find common ground with people by sharing stories, laughs, or experiences. And seek out communities aligned with activities or causes important to you.

Don’t neglect self-care either. Make time for familiar comforting rituals from home, like cooking favorite recipes. And connect with supportive friends or family who “get” your background.

Practice adapting your communication style to be better understood. For example, speak slower, avoid idioms, explain context, and ask for clarification.

If language barriers feel frustrating, take a class or get a tutor. Carry a translation dictionary, and utilize apps, gestures or drawings to aid communication.

Have compassion for yourself on difficult days. Recognize that growth happens gradually. And remember that living authentically in alignment with your values matters most.

Outsider fish can feel at home in all kinds of new ponds. The discomfort of those initial flops on land does fade over time. Soon, having the flexibility to thrive in multiple environments feels empowering.