Making Friends: Following the Cultural Rules of Relationship-Building

Is it easy to make friends in your culture?

In the category of “making friends” in the 2020 Expat Insider survey, conducted annually by InterNations, Switzerland ranks at the bottom end of the list at 53. 

Only Japan, Norway, Sweden, Kuwait, and Denmark offer tougher friend-making odds. 

The Local describes making friendships in these countries quite aptly:

“The way to their hearts can sometimes feel as long, dark and cold as the Nordic winters.”

And considering the Swiss concept of friendship and aversion to small talk with strangers, it’s easy to see why this would be the case.

An outsider might find it difficult to gain the trust and loyalty of lifelong friendship from the Swiss…particularly, as an expat, who is more likely to leave the country at some point.

So, how do you build friendships in countries where it’s notoriously hard and where your expat status makes it more likely that your time is fleeting?

Take Your Cue from Locals

Differing concepts of friendship can be a struggle, but some cross-cultural understanding will help ease the transition.

An American in Switzerland should be considerate of differences in communicational comfort.

Because the most important thing to keep in mind in countries that have a more restrictive definition of friendship is to hold back, as your own cultural approach will come across as overbearing.

Refrain from small talk with strangers in grocery stories. When with colleagues, speak in generalities and don’t get too personal too quickly.

And on the other side of the pond, a Swiss expat in America should brace oneself for discomfort when it comes to communication and friendship.

You might choose either to be open to adapting to the norm of small talk and practice sharing your personal life, bit by bit, or you might accept being viewed as closed and reserved by your American colleagues.

If your goal is to make friends and integrate, the first choice will obviously gain you more ground in a culture that’s more sociable than your own.

And remember: when you’re a foreigner, making friends is more than just socializing; a local friend can greatly aid you in understanding and navigating the culture.

Speaking in Generalities

As with everything, these generalities are not inclusive of every American and every Swiss.

You’ll find some Americans to be private and reserved and some Swiss to be more open to friendship.

You must always take stereotypes with a grain of salt and know that each and every person is an individual case.

Regardless, an awareness of your host culture’s general approach to human-to-human contact will help you avoid overstepping the common social boundaries that the culture deems agreeable.

10 Cultural Universals: The Dignity of Food (tips from Anthony Bourdain)

Anthony Bourdain said it best:

“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.”

It comes as no surprise, then, that food is one of the 10 Cultural Universals. Along with shelter, clothing, and transport, food is a fundamental part of culture that celebrates it in a big way.

Through food and travel, Anthony Bourdain deeply inspired those of us who are interested in exploring, learning about, and understanding other cultures. He saw the power and dignity of food and how, among so many other things, a meal brings all of humanity together.

In deep respect and honor of Bourdain’s tragic passing just a couple weeks ago, I’ve compiled and condensed some of his greatest words of wisdom regarding food, culture, travel, and life.

#1: “I’ve long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk. Whether we’re talking about unpasteurized Stilton, raw oysters or working for organized crime ‘associates,’ food, for me, has always been an adventure.”

Food, just like life, should be an adventure.

While traveling or living abroad, you may face a meal that’ll make your stomach turn. But sometimes, you must take risks. Sometimes, you must grit your teeth and take that first bite.

Rejecting someone else’s food can feel like a personal rejection – or even a cultural rejection.

Accepting it, even if it’s not to your liking, shows your hosts that you care enough to make the effort and that you respect what they’ve created.

#2: “I’m not afraid to look like an idiot.”

Perhaps one of the most useful tips for travelers or soon-to-be expats is to be not afraid to play the fool.

My book, I am the Monkey, stresses this theme. It’s humbling to remember you are the odd-one-out looking in, not the other way around.

As the monkey, you must learn to be comfortable dropping your guard.

This goes for learning how to eat properly in other cultures too.

Never used chopsticks? Go on, give it a try. Sure, you’ll look clumsy at first, but soon enough, you’ll be capable.

The point is – you must not let feeling foolish get in the way of learning.

If you do, anxiety will be your roadblock to success across cultures.

Follow Bourdain’s advice and don’t be afraid to look like an idiot. In fact, embrace it.

#3: “I don’t have to agree with you to like you or respect you.”

Food is unique to the culture in which it was created, which is a beautiful thing.

Sometimes, the dish is not always pretty. But, more often than not, it’s the one aspect of a culture that can make all of us drop our pretenses, if we’re willing, and just appreciate each other, human to human.

And “dropping our pretenses” doesn’t mean we must stop talking, stop learning.

While sharing a meal, keep the conversation alive, like a pro:

“I don’t go in asking hard-news questions, but incredibly enough, again and again, just by sitting down with people over food and giving them a platform where I can listen to them, they say extraordinary things that can be very political in their implications.” – Bourdain

Keep talking. But more so, listen.

Sharing a meal with someone already demonstrates that you like and respect them, even if you don’t agree with their intrinsic beliefs.

Whenever you’re abroad, take a deep dive into your host’s food culture. Share a meal with locals.

You may just find that food is more than filling; it’s a teacher of compassion.

“Food may not be the answer to world peace, but it’s a start.” – Bourdain

 

Step 5 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Taking Action by Learning & Sharing

Whether you’re an expat in a foreign country or working with expats in your own, integration requires action.

Successfully managing or working across cultures necessitates planning; not just business planning, but planning for how to react to those all-too-painful monkey moments.

When relocating abroad, your company will likely provide some type of pre-departure cross-cultural skills training. Such guidance can help significantly in adjusting to a new culture. However, cross-cultural training is not guaranteed, nor is it guaranteed to be effective.

Instead, most successful managers take cross-cultural integration into their own hands, navigating the steps of Awareness, Accepting, Adapting, Adopting, and Taking Action, with the last step being the most hands-on.

Taking action involves two action-packed tasks: Learning and Sharing.

We’ll discuss both briefly in this post and cover them in more detail over the next several weeks.

Learning

When you look at all the intricate details of a culture, you might grow overwhelmed with just how much there is to learn. The task seems nearly impossible and seeing it as such can be a setback to integration.

Instead, break down learning into the following three steps so that it seems a little less daunting:

  • Learn Language – Communication is essential to integration, so language learning should be high on your to-do list.
  • Learn Religion – Learning about religion will help you better understand the values and norms of a culture.
  • Learn History – The same goes for learning a country’s history. Some knowledge of your host country’s past will help place some of the local’s traditions and habits in historical context.

Sharing

You shouldn’t try and integrate on your own; in fact, doing so is counterintuitive. The whole point of integrating into a foreign culture is to make connections. That’s where sharing comes in!

  • Seeking Friends – Making friends with the locals will not only take some of the stress off your initial culture shock, but it will also aid in cross-cultural understanding.
  • Sharing Food – Sharing in each other’s food culture is a great way to ease into deeper-rooted cultural differences.
  • Looking for your Zookeeper – Every monkey needs a zookeeper. The best zookeeper is one who may know enough about your culture to help you integrate into their own. They will be your veritable tour guide in this foreign land, as it is their home.

Tune in over the next several weeks, as we’ll discuss learning and sharing in more detail and offer advice on how best to approach each.