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How to find friends when you study abroad

One of the biggest challenges for foreign students is often a strong feeling of loneliness, or hardships in finding local friends. This is unfortunate, because for many of us, one of the main reasons to study abroad is to expand the network of friends and connections internationally. The fact that when you get to school, you find yourself glued to international students from your own country is understandable, but kind of defies the purpose.

At GradTrain, we hear these concerns often. Students come to the United States with the expectation to meet more people and expand their cultural and social circles beyond what they know from home. But it is not always as easy as expected. Here are some common feelings of international students:

  • “Americans ask ‘how are you?’ and ‘how was your weekend?’ but they are not really looking for an answer. It’s just another way of saying hello. I learned quite fast not to be offended by it, but I still don’t understand when it’s “right” to engage in a conversation.”
  • “No one understands my sense of humor.”
  • “People have stigmas about people from my country, and I feel like I live under a mission to refute them. It is very tiring.”
  • “When I am in my home country I am just me. But here, I feel I’m first of all ‘that girl from the Middle East.’ I am expected to know and to be able to explain – and sometimes to criticize - everything my head of state decides. It is quite frustrating – and people often do not understand my point of view.”
  • “Americans speak very fast. I am used to being the smart guy in the group – kind of a leader. The one that everybody listens to when he speaks. But I am not that guy here. I am even afraid that I lost my “touch” and will not get it back even when I get home."
  • “There is very little to talk about. We often do not share the same value system, we don’t watch the same TV programs, we do not have the same interpretation to historical events and we have different cultural sensitivities.”


So how do you make yourself approachable to American classmates?

Our first and most important tip is to treat yourself to at least one coaching session with a GradTrain coach from your own country who has gone through this process. Our coaches offer the best help you can get – to overcome some of the hurdles they faced when they were in your shoes. All of our coaches offer help in getting adjusted to school abroad. This is just what you need.

Let us also give you some helpful tips from the general experience of former international students. Before you start, allow us to tell you that Americans would often also love to have you as a friend. But they too don’t know exactly how to start, and they too are afraid to look like they are patronizing you, or to make cultural mistakes, or to be rejected. So they stick with what and who they know. Our tips are meant to help you make it easier for them too.

  1. LANGUAGE. Learn American English before you go. We are not talking about reading and writing. We are talking about speaking. If you can find an American in your neighborhood back home, it’s a good time to befriend him. Otherwise – go on GradTrain or elsewhere online – and have a video session in English. Watch movies. Practice your spoken language including slang. Oh – and body language. Definitely get some idea of how American body language is different from the one you know from back home. 
  2. SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT. Try to create common experiences to talk about, because you grew up in different places and these things may not come naturally. A good way to start is to use your studies as a common ground and experience. Talk about your classes, your labs. Weather is also a common, safe resort. Sports is also a good ice-breaker. Americans are into sports. A lot of their slang and even business language is from baseball. American Football is very popular, so you can learn about it and start from there. (And don’t preach to them that it’s not real football, eh!). And learn the art of small talk. Americans are experts in small talk. You will need to be able to speak about the weather for more than one minute. Compare it to last winter, compare it to another city in America – find a way to make a conversation.
  3. JUDGMENT ASIDE. As foreigners, you naturally compare what you see in America to what you know from home. The food doesn’t taste the same, American parties are not the dancing parties you may know from home (as someone once defined it – an American party is people standing in a well lit room, talking and drinking), and the fashion is different. But people feel when they are judged – and it doesn’t make you seem nicer. Besides, it’s not necessarily “less good”. It’s just different. So avoid judging, if you can.
  4. AWKWARDNESS. This is something about Americans that is very very hard to understand as a foreigner. Americans hate feeling awkward. They avoid it at any cost. “Awkward” is when you are in a situation where you do not know what to say, are unfamiliar with the situation or otherwise feel inappropriate. When you as a foreigner approach an American, you trigger the awkwardness radar. They start thinking they may not understand your accent, you might say something weird, they might look stupid. If you wear a traditional garb – they would not know if they are supposed to say something to you or not – and it may make them feel awkward. Understand it and see the next tip for dealing with that.
  5. DRESS. Of course, nobody should be judged by their looks. Well – the world isn’t fair. If you dress more like everybody else, you will look more like one of them, and it would be easier for Americans to start a conversation with you. While we are at it, note: regardless of where in the world you are from, Americans probably have more clothes than you do. They also have more shoes. They simply do. You won’t see your classmates wearing the same shirt to school as they did yesterday – or the day before (yes, even if it’s still perfectly clean). Oh and “dress codes” are meant to be followed. It’s beyond recommendation.  
  6. BE AWARE OF CULTURAL DIFFERENCES. If you are from Africa or the Middle East, it is customary to ask – “how are you and how is your family?” when you meet a friend. America is more individualistic and people may not actually know how their families are doing. They would also not understand why you care and may view it as an intimate question. You will make them feel awkward (a big no-no). If you are European, socialism in America is not exactly something to aspire to.  And anyway, political discussions are usually also saved for a later stage in the acquaintance. As well as any criticism. Learn how Americans view history. For example, if you are from Vietnam, you call the 1957-75 War “The American War”. Well, Americans call it “the Vietnam War”. Just so you know.
  7. BE COMFORTABLE. Maintain a comfortable corner – where you also have friends from your home country – and other international friends. Some people recommend you shun away from having friends from your home country – in order to force you to socialize with Americans. We disagree. You need to have one corner of your social life that is not a struggle.

We hope this helps. However, many things can be individual from country to country and from person to person. We strongly recommend that you get intouch with a GradTrain coach from your country who can guide you on this matter! before you depart to your studies – or when you start facing some issues.

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