English only please?

Many expats tackle language issues when moving to a new country.
Many expats tackle language issues when moving to a new country.

We’re in the time of year when many expatriates relocate or return from holiday, removed from family and friends, eager to settle in but perhaps uncertain, often with more questions than answers. What a great time to make local friends.

It’s not atypical to arrive in country with limited local language skills, and venture out to explore the new surroundings, wholeheartedly or tentatively. Inevitably, feelings of frustration, confusion or failure occur. It’s instinctively human to shrink from unpleasant, awkward, embarrassing situations; to get by in ways that require less effort. People don’t enjoy feeling irritated or foolish. Consequently, some see avoidance and withdrawal as self-protection.

The more we withdraw, the less comfortable we feel, and that can lead to full retreat. It often leads us, almost without thinking, to a place we feel comfortable: the expatriate English-speaking subculture.

Shared history is important in relationships, and feeling we still share something with others, even if it’s merely understanding the language, renews confidence. Here, we tell ourselves, we remain competent. Soon we’re involved in activities and associating with other English-speakers. But instant friendships are sometimes suspicious stuff, and in the haste to fit-in, people occasionally collide more than seek each other out. Even in the expatriate subculture, not all relationships are based on mutual respect or similarities; sometimes the connection is shared hesitation to join in the local culture.

Clearly the English-speaking sub-culture is a welcome, valuable safety net. It beckons with familiarity, even as we feel pushed away by the local culture. It’s easy to succumb without struggle into this refuge in order to meet people, acquire information, and regain a sense of balance. It’s a helpful resource, an important facet of expatriate life, and an honorable sanctuary. So we become involved, have some socialization needs met, and in that ease and comfort, often neglect to seek relationships with non-English speakers.

But not all socializing, anywhere, leads to satisfying personal relationships and the English-speaking sector need not become the only place to feel at home. To remain solely within this enclave results in missed opportunities, and for others, a failure of will.

Even within this subculture, people are sometimes surprised at the difficulty of forming gratifying relationships. To limit associations to “English-speaking only” is as if we want it both ways: to live in another country, yet be minimally affected by local people or culture. But it does impact us, and in turn, produces reactions. If we take it seriously, we must encounter the local culture. We may discover we share as many – or more – values and interests with non-English speaking locals, if we take the time to befriend them, even in faltering Spanish.

Anywhere we seek them, relationships don’t come ready made: we still have to build them. So how to get beyond acquaintance to bona fide relationships?

Effective interpersonal relationships depend upon:

• Kindness – more natural for some than others, pays big dividends; find opportunities to assist others.

• Value people – people, not things, are what life is all about.

• Patience – it takes both you and others time to assess and act.

• Politeness – respect people and customs and be your authentic self.

• Persistence – healthy relationships require a commitment strong enough to face setbacks.

• Give people the benefit of the doubt; invest measures of trust as appropriate.

• Pay attention; show interest without asking too many questions initially.

• Humility is a commendable characteristic.

• Let your interest unfold naturally with 1-2 people at a time.

• Invite others to share activities.

Base relationships on shared values. Use the skills you have developed over a lifetime. Appreciate a lower level of warmth or eagerness. Allow attraction to grow out of genuine liking rather than proving you can make friends quickly. Acceptance is the core of any relationship. Openness, honesty and trust are impossible to fake. The price of true friendship always includes some degree of vulnerability.

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