How To Be Friends with Someone from a Different Culture

I grew up in a multicultural society that tried to pretend it wasn’t (South Africa, in the time preceding and during the transition to a democracy). Heck, I grew up in a multicultural family (my dad was born in Yorkshire and my mum … wasn’t). I moved to London and was pleasantly surprised that the culture shock was not as severe as I had feared it would be. Then I moved to the North East of England and married a man from Northern Ireland. I have learned some hard lessons about what it means to be the foreigner looking for friends. This article examines how you might be able to maintain your friendship with somebody who is not from the same culture as you, especially if you are from the majority culture and they are not.

How hard can it be, being friends with somebody different to you? I mean, none of us are really the same, are we. Deep down, we’re all unique and it’s the beauty of our combined uniquenesses (unique-complex?) that makes the magic of friendship what it is. Except, when the person who is your friend comes from a different culture, there are frequently assumptions and perspective differences that can make maintaining the friendship challenging. But keeping a few things in mind can help keep the relationship strong, and make it easier to negotiate those pesky trouble spots.

  1. Remember that you are from two different cultures.

This sounds pretty obvious, but sometimes it can be easy to forget, especially if your friend has a similar appearance to you. Culture isn’t just in the way we dress, or the language we speak, but in our way of relating to our peers, our elders, those in authority, our animals. It’s as much in the way we select food at a buffet as it is in the stories that we tell, and the ones that we don’t. Your friend might be timid or aggressive or talk with their hands because that’s just the way they are, or because that’s the way their culture has taught them to be. It’s not why they are that way that matters, but who they are.

  1. Sometimes, the same word can have a different meaning, or worse, a different connotation.

I grew up speaking English. I moved to London and spoke English (well, I changed a few words and rapidly developed a super posh accent so the kids I took care of understood me). Last week, I discovered that some people might be offended by one of the nicknames that I use for Little Person – a nickname that is not only acceptable, but common in my country of origin. Needless to say, I’m working very hard on not using that anymore.

But these things happen. I still end up asking The Dude whether it’s okay to say this or that. If your friend says something inappropriate or that you don’t understand, I refer you to 1 above. They don’t know any different. And they won’t know any different until you tell them. Get over it, laugh about it, talk about it. Being your friend’s cultural translator should be a source of amusement for you both, and should help make your friendship stronger. But you need to be wise enough to look beyond any perceived offence. Remember: the same words from a different culture are not really the same words.

  1. What’s rude to you can be acceptable to them. And vice versa.

Sometime your friend might shake their head or burst out laughing because they can’t believe you dared to such a thing. Sometime you might find yourself tugging at your friend’s arm begging them to leave it and stop what they are doing while you wish for the ground to swallow the two of you up. The subtleties of cultural differences come to the fore in situations where there is a conflict to be resolved, or a need to be met, or a favour to be asked. If you take the time to really understand your friend, and educate them on the norms in your society, you might be able to use their relative timidity or brashness to your mutual advantage. Plus, your friend can honestly say “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend. I’m not from around here.” If they’ve been around your new (to them) culture for a while, they might have plenty of practice at apologising. It’s a useful skill.

  1. Chances are, it’s not deliberate.

I’m referring to that text that was a bit blunt, or that hesitation in the conversation that was a bit too long. The turn of phrase that made you think “what does that mean?” or even “how dare she! I thought she was my friend!”. Those encounters that are just between the two of you that leave you scratching your head, or maybe even hurt. Especially since your friend said or did that hurtful thing with complete nonchalance.

I can almost guarantee it was not deliberate. If they knew how you were feeling, they would be rushing over to apologise. Again, if they don’t know, the only way they will find out is if you tell them. But wait until you’re not so mad or upset or hurt. Because you don’t want to denigrate them or their culture, because that would just be disrespectful. And there’s one thing worse than been disrespected accidentally, and that is being disrespected intentionally. You’ll probably find that you have said some unintentionally hurtful things in your time together too.

  1. How come this person from a different culture is in your life anyway?

A person doesn’t end up in a culture different from the one that they were raised in by accident. Are they a refugee? A student? Looking to build themselves a better life? Any way you look at it, living a life immersed in a different culture, either temporarily or permanently, takes a great deal of bravery and perseverance. You don’t know what your friend has been through to get here, and they may make light of it (often brave people really don’t want to be pitied). But that same strength of character, and bravery, can make it difficult for them to ask for help.

  1. What makes a friendship a friendship?

I haven’t been talking about making friends with someone from a different culture, but maintaining the friendship. Sometimes making friends is the easy bit – the sparkle of new acquaintance, the novelty of this person with a story so different from your own. It can be a bit like young love.

But here’s the thing, friendships require work. Fun work, most of the time, but work nonetheless. Friendship across the cultural divide require their own sorts of work, but also present their own rewards. You may find yourselves rubbing off on each other a bit – your quiet friend may teach you to hold your tongue, or your more confrontational friend may teach you to stand up for yourself. Cross-cultural friendships are more likely to run into misunderstandings, which means they have more opportunities for real and honest communication, which means they should be deeper and more meaningful. As I always tell The Dude, “I’m hard work, but I’m worth it.”

I hope these pointers help you to develop stronger and more meaningful relationships with your friends cross the cultural divide.


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