Interact when abroad

Interacting with a new culture is never easy, so if I may, let me give you some tips that I use for myself each time I am in front of a new reality:

Step 1. Observe

Pay attention on how the locals talk and dress. Take note of when and why they laugh. Observe what and how they eat. Watch them as if it’s the first time you’re seeing something being done – with curiosity and a desire for learning. Simply observe and refrain judging.

Step 2. Camouflage

Although you’ll want to continue observing indefinitely, after a while, you should start trying to blend in with the locals. Try to eat what they eat, even if it’s not your favourite food. Gastronomy is a great springboard for interaction. It is also helpful to follow the local meal schedule.

Watch television. Find out which programs are the most popular and watch them. It’s a great way to understand the local customs and interests. Listen to music in the local language. Try to learn the lyrics; singing along is a fun way to learn new vocabulary and you’re less likely to forget it that way. Listen to the radio; even the advertisements can speak volumes about the local society. Try to put aside your own point of views and see things as if you are experiencing them through a child’s eyes, and then try to copy what you see.

Step 3. Language

It’s best to avoid the traditional international language centres. After all, you can’t truly immerse yourself into a new culture if you surround yourself with other foreigners. Try to find courses or groups that coincide with your interests, profession, or studies that are not necessary language classes, so that you can meet some locals.

If your language abilities are lacking, why not sign up for classes at a university? Most of them have language classes for foreigners. These carry a number of advantages. Besides being less expensive and more intensive, they might give you access to other university courses. Moreover, you’ll be part of the university environment, which will be filled with locals and give you a better grasp of how they live and interact. Teenagers could try a language exchange with the locals. Keep in mind that learning a new language properly is an excellent way of showing respect to the new culture and can open many doors that would otherwise be closed.

Step 4: Sport

Look for opportunities to practice your favourite sports. This goes beyond simply hitting the gym; sports like running, cycling, or swimming provide ample opportunity to immerse and interact. Besides being good for your health, you’ll get a chance to get to know the locals. Some associations are free or very inexpensive if you’re part of the team.

Step 5. Culture

Seek out cultural programs and choose ones that seem like a good match for you. For example, you could try subscribing to newsletters from the local theatres or cultural associations or look for concerts. In fact, if a good artist from your country will be in town for a concert, it’s a great chance for you to invite local people to learn more about your own culture! The give-and-take dynamic is the hallmark of a true interaction.

You’ll find plenty of calendars online with information about local festivals and other gatherings and parties. Make sure to attend these. Also check out the newsletter from the district where you live. For example, Florence residents can get into some museums for free on certain days of the month.

Step 6. Hobbies

Hobbies provide an excellent way to interact with a new culture. Do you play chess or cards? Are you a theatre lover? Do you play an instrument? Do you enjoy cycling or walking outdoors? Any hobby can turn into a chance to fit into your new surroundings and feel more at home.

Step 7. Blog

The Internet brings so much information to our fingertips- use this to your advantage! The most popular blogs for locals can give you unparalleled insights, not to mention terrific advice regarding where to go, what to do, where to shop, and services like hairdressers, beauty centres, etc. Look for blogs that seem neutral and recommend places they genuinely like rather than those that seem like paid promotions for certain businesses.

Step 8: Be patient

The process of immersing into a new culture requires a lot of patience, especially if you are in a smaller town. Big cities are a bit more accustomed to the migration flow than smaller ones. Sometimes people might seem grumpy; keep in mind this might be their personality and it could have nothing to do with you being foreign. In these times, patience is vital so leave your pride behind and try not to take it personally.

Just as you need to observe the locals, they also need to observe you. When you are a newcomer, no one knows who you are, so a bit of initial distrust is natural. Resist the urge to judge a healthy fear of the unknown. You could be talking to someone who has never been exposed to anyone outside of his or her culture. Little by little, this will change, although it might take longer in some places than others. Be patient and you’ll get there eventually.

Step 9. Politics

This can be a tricky topic, but an important aspect of understanding a new culture is having a basic grasp of its political system and parties. You should at least know the names of the people in charge and the current debate topics.

Some people think politics don’t matter, but when people don’t care about what happens in a country, they let others do the ruling. Patriotism and the level of political involvement say a lot about a nation. Many populations might be tired of their government but they don’t do anything to change it; this is often reflected by society at large. On the other hand, there are some countries where people are proud of their government. All of these traits shape the local culture and show us something about the people we are living amongst.

Step 10. Respect

Once you have observed, learned, and blended in, don’t forget who you are. Fitting into society does not mean leaving your own personal identity behind forever. Ideally, you want to have more experiences, expand your horizons, and learn new ways of doing things – even if you end up still doing things the same way you have always done them.

Once you have tried your best to learn about a new culture, you can start to interact with it. Even if you don’t agree with a certain way of doing things, the fact that you make a point of understanding it shows that you respect the culture of the local people and that will earn you their respect in return. After all, respect is the basis of any good relationship, and that respect comes from knowledge and understanding.

Veronica Botelho