Creating and maintaining a successful intercultural relationship takes work. In my experience, people are more easily able to maintain close relationships with others in their own culture because it’s easier to do so; when you grow up in the same basic environment as another person, you have your own common-ground as a basis for any relationship. People from the same cultures can use what I like to call a “cultural shorthand”, in order to quickly establish rapport and to create friendships. With different cultural backgrounds in play, it’s a little harder but it still can be done.
The first thing you need to do when opening relationships with someone from a different culture is to learn what you can about them. What are their traditions? What can you learn about their mentality and their culture? Observing and understanding these things will help you to develop the capability of relating to their culture. I always say, “No matter how different we seem on the surface, underneath it all we’ve got a lot in common, and a lot to share”.
After taking the time to get to know something about the other culture, it’s time to test what you’ve learned. This stage takes patience and understanding, but it is well worth the effort. In my experience people don’t particularly like being challenged about their cultures, but they love teaching it to others.
Instead of criticizing something that seems odd to you, ask a good question about it. Chances are, you’ll come away with a better understanding of why something is done a certain way, and your friend will have the opportunity to introduce a part of their culture to you. For extra credit, you can explain how the same thing is done, or not done, in your own culture. Remember, the objective is not to criticize, but to exchange information.
At some point in your cross-cultural relationship building adventure, you’re going to have to deal with the three hundred pound gorilla in the room; the language barrier. Language problems can be a source of frustration, but they can also be a great opportunity to learn. When you don’t understand something don’t get frustrated, just ask for an explanation. At this point, the most valuable ten words to say are “can you explain this to me in a different way”? For extra credit, learn how to say this sentence in your new friend’s own language. This might just be the best sentence in another language that you’ll ever learn.
Respect is crucial at all times. There might be some things about another culture that you don’t particularly care for. Their might even be some things that you find crazy, or even offensive. Remember to approach these issues respectfully. You don’t have to eat a strange dish if you don’t want to, but you don’t have to wrinkle your nose up and scowl either.
Finally, you’ll want to avoid cultural conflicts. There may be some things about another culture that you’ll never learn to appreciate. You may even come to hate these things. Building relationships is about building bridges based on mutual agreement.
Imagine that you had a friend who you argued with non-stop every single time you met them. That’s not a friendship that’s going to last for too long, is it? Talk about the things that come easy, and save the arguments for another time.