This post is by a guest blogger, Jennifer Kumar. Jennifer is a cross-cultural trainer who helps Indians and American learn to communicate better with each other. Check out her website at Authentic Journeys.
Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bionicteaching/ (Creative Commons)
Being understood by those around us helps us fit in, feel comfortable in a new place and leads to making close friends. But, when moving to a new place sometimes we think, “Why doesn’t anyone understand me? Will I ever be able to fit in?”
Rather than focus on the divide or the ‘foreignness’ of the locals or ourselves, let’s look at four areas of our lives we can assess to help fit in better and be better understood by ‘the local people’:
Language is an obvious barrier especially when moving to another country where the language is completely different and foreign. Try to learn the language. Take classes before moving or after arriving. With the internet now there are many ways to learn languages before going to a new country.
However, even if the language is the same as languages already spoken, don’t take it for granted that understanding will come by default. There are many dialects, accents, vocabulary, and slang differences between regions and countries. Spanish in Mexico is not the same as Spanish in Spain. English is not always the same in U.S., Australia, U.K., India or the multitude of other countries that have English as an official language. Just like teenagers have a different language than adults, language varies around the world. Take time to learn the local ways of talking and interacting. Get out and DO IT. Try it no matter how embarrassing or uncomfortable it is. Absorbing it from TV is not the same as absorbing it face-to-face.
Also, remember that non-verbal communication such as facial expressions, hand gestures and body language vary from culture to culture, which is an additional layer to the language learning experience.
While learning a local language, learning the local culture should naturally come in bits and chunks. Talking about a foreign culture to locals is intriguing, but people will surely get bored soon. When newcomers show interest in local events and news this gives another layer to understanding the lifestyle of the people. Try to learn the struggles and joys of daily life of the people in your area on a more personal level. The best way to do this is if it is possible offer help to your neighbors, or better yet, don’t be afraid to ask for help. This way we can learn new things like local food choices, directions to different places, fun hangout places, and in general how different people approach and solve problems differently.
Find some foods you like in the local culture. Depending on the local customs; share a meal with some new friends. If it is part of the local custom to go out to a restaurant to share a meal, try this. Better yet, if it is acceptable to try to cook a meal and share it with new friends; try this out. Doing this will show your local friends that you appreciate their culture underneath the superficial level.
Though many countries have jeans or pants and shirt as a global culture, try to find out the style of the place you are living. Maybe the patterns or color choices are different. Maybe the fit and tailoring is different. Try to find some clothes in the local culture that suit your evolving fashion sense. If there are ethnic wear choices where you live and they are acceptable to wear, try that out and see how it suits you. Changing dressing style is difficult, but it helps us blend in and fit in better and therefore one less layer to ‘peel off’ for others to understand you better.
Moving to a new country and fitting in shares characteristics with other times in our lives we went through a transition and had to fit in to a new environment. What were some skills you used to adjust when starting high school (from junior high) or college (from high school)? How did you adjust and find your footing in your first job or subsequent jobs? How did you find your comfort zone when moving into your first apartment or dorm room with your college mate? There are probably countless transitions you have already successfully mastered in your life. Take some of the lessons from those and apply them to your move abroad along with the tips above and you will be sure to find your new comfort zone very soon!
**This article was inspired by an enthusiastic young man I met at Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, NY who was preparing for a trip to India. Thank you for the inspiration and all the best in your trip!