Tips on how to conduct yourself with foreigners
I haven’t written in a while, so here is a doozy for you.
Here are some tips about how to act towards foreigners. This is mostly a conglomeration of my experiences that may be common among foreigners. But keep in mind:the majority of the foreigners you deal with will not be me. And people have all kinds of preferences. These are just guidelines that most sensitive people might already know, but many people don’t realize they need to do (or stop doing).
And whenever I refer to “foreigners” as “they”, I am sorry. Obviously we are not a cohesive group of people with one type of experience (intersectionality) and I’m mostly speaking from my point of view (intersectionality) which is a white girl from the US (if you don’t know what intersectionality means, look it up.)
So here we go:
1. Ask them questions, because being from somewhere else is cool! Learn something from this person who is cool just by inherently being who they are. They might like to talk about their country and their experiences and their views.
2. But don’t make those questions freaking obnoxious. I have not encountered a super-obnoxious question, possibly because I am white and come from a privileged country that people tend to know a lot about because we shove ourselves down everyone’s throat.
For example, I was talking to a Mexican girl, and we had gotten to the point in our relationship where we felt comfortable enough to ask each other the things we wanted to know, but we knew were obnoxious to ask. The general rule among all of us foreigners who hang out together is to wait until we have hung out three times or more before we bust out the crazy questions. I asked her if Mexico is really as dangerous as we hear (answer, basically yes, but not where she lives) and she asked me if there were really a lot of fat people in the United States.
3. Be ready for the pause after you ask questions like that. I didn’t mind the question and I didn’t mind answering it. (my answer was more or less “yeah, I guess so, but there are fat people everywhere, and fat people are cool too”. And then I ate the rest of the french fries. That is true. Coincidental, but true.) I like answering questions about US stereotypes, because I tend to be the first United States person that everyone here has ever met, and I like to set records straight. But sometimes I have to think for a little while about my answers.
4. Don’t feel that you need to be politically-correct and ignore the fact that they are different. Because they are different, and pretending they aren’t makes it seem like being different is wrong. They know they are different, so tell them with your actions that the way they are is not wrong. Every time they open their mouth, or don’t quite understand something that is happening, they feel their foreignness. It is sometimes nice to have someone else acknowledge this, so that you don’t feel insane, like you are wearing a giant goose costume as a joke, but nobody fucking notices. You begin to wonder if you are really wearing that goose costume.
I am not saying that foreigners are gooses—that thing your grandmother used to call you when you were being silly. Except maybe we are. I do, on average, two embarrassing things a day.
5. Don’t use stereotypes of a person’s nationality to comment on their behavior. One night at dinner, there were sandwiches of various sizes and I asked if I could have the biggest one, because I was really hungry. My friend said “oh yeah, because Americans have to have big things and eat big food”. I turned red, almost cried, and could barely eat after that. He hadn’t meant to offend—he meant to make a joke, because I have mentioned how things in the US tend to be larger. Because they do. But I didn’t want to eat more because I’m from the US—I was hungry! Everyone gets hungry! If people are following the stereotypes of their ethnicity, it is because people do things. United States people eat. Japanese people take pictures. Kenyans run. Italians gesture when they speak. Nearly everyone does these things. Most people do most things. And not because they are from a certain place.
6. If the foreign person is a language learner, be nice to them. What does this mean? It means lots of things. I recommend putting on as mild of a “listening face” as possible. There are some people at school who get panicked looks on their faces when I begin to speak to them, move their hair away from their ears, get closer to me, frown and wrinkle their brows, and still barely understand me. I realize that it can be hard to recognize your country’s words in my mouth, but I know for a fact that it is not that difficult to understand me. So try not to make faces, but the next few points are more important than keeping a poker face, so you can make faces as long as you follow these next few.
7. Don’t try to complete sentences for them. Just don’t. You don’t know what they’re going to say, even if you think you do. It feels like you’re helping them, because maybe their sentence sounds painful, but it isn’t. They are busy thinking, and not hearing their strained words. And anyway, every sentence out of their mouth is a struggle, so this one isn’t any more difficult than every other thing they’ve said all day. So just leave them alone and let them barf it out. In trying to finish their thought for them, you will likely do it incorrectly, therefore respond incorrectly, and force them to begin again, and probably what they wanted to say was the opposite of how you responded and you will both be embarrassed.
8. Don’t be afraid to ask “what?”. Going back to the goose costume, the language learner knows that what they are saying does not sound normal. They know they are wearing that goose costume. So if you listened to what they said and it made no fucking sense, don’t respond pretending that it did. Ask them to repeat themselves. They want to be understood. Obviously, asking “what” seven times is too many. If you still don’t understand them, I recommend admitting you have no idea what they’re saying, but that you like them and think they’re cool and beautiful, and that they’re brave for coming to your country. And the beak is really realistic.
9. When you speak to them, don’t use ready-made phrases that make no sense. Do not ask them to “throw you a bone” or tell them that you “have a boner” or even other phrases that have nothing to do with bones. This one is relatively obvious, but there are some people who are absolutely incapable of speaking to me because they cannot shake these phrases from their vocabulary, and don’t explain them to me after they say them, and I end up just staring blankly at them and everyone feels uncomfortable.
10. Speak clearly and slowly if you can. But not too slowly, like you would to a dog. And not loudly. Just, just speak clearly and slowly. And choose simple words, if possible. I don’t know. This is the step that exhausts me when speaking to English language learners, so I feel like a hypocrite asking other people to do it too. But if you can manage, it is appreciated. Unless they are obviously really fluent in your language. Use your judgement. Have good judgement.
11. If you know the language of the person’s home country, DO NOT speak it to them in it upon discovering their country of origin. Even if you are doing it to make them feel at home, or for the more selfish reason of wanting to practice the language, you will only succeed in telling them “you probably don’t know my language very well. I, on the other hand, have a solid grasp on yours, so let me help you”. No. No. I will kill you. I will eat you. I will grind you up and make a condescension-burger out of you. You know where I am from.
If you cannot figure out what language they prefer by doing the complex task of listening to the language in which they address, you may ask them what language they prefer. I do not mind people asking my preference, though I always quickly answer that I prefer Spanish. It is nice to ask people what they want. But it’s even nicer to “intuit” what people want by listening to their words.
If you want to practice your foreign language skills, and who doesn’t, why don’t you ask this person if they want to have a language exchange, to meet for coffee or something? Everyone benefits, and you’ve got a fun new friend. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe they suck. Not all foreigners are cool.
12. Don’t ask the person who has introduced the foreigner to you whether or not the foreigner speaks your language. It is rude, and erases the foreigner’s presence and diminishes their intelligence. Ask the foreigner directly at the barest of bare minimums, but better yet, talk to them and discover whether or not they speak your language. And be prepared for small pauses from them while they process your words. It is difficult to meet a new person in another language. There are a lot of social signals to pick up on top of comprehending speech pattern of a stranger. I always have a hard time understanding a person the first time I meet them. So if the foreigner is kind of weird the first time you meet them, don’t hold it against them.
Although foreigners probably will be a little bit weird in terms of your culture. There are so many tiny things going on all the time within cultures that natives understand perfectly, but that throw wrenches in the gears of outsiders. For example, the intricate dance of invitations in the United States. Oftentimes we invite people to things but we are not serious, just doing it to be polite. The other person has to gauge this and know whether to accept or not. US people can do this pretty easily, I think, but it must be hell for outsiders.
13. I imagine it is exhausting to be nice to foreigners. They stutter and have no idea what is going on and are maybe sad sometimes for various reasons. You don’t have to be everything to them. But acknowledge that they are there. Say hi and how are you and occasionally ask how things are going. But be consistent. There is one teacher at school who is sometimes really sweet to me, and other times completely ignores me. I will admit that I am kind of emotionally needy here. So I get excited like a puppy when she is nice, but very confused like a puppy when she ignores me. So if you know you can’t handle the responsibility of owning a foreigner, don’t adopt one, and don’t order one bred for you. You can just be cordial like a normal person, and if you hit it off, then you can be friends.
14. Basically just remember that foreigners are people too who like positive attention, and who don’t want to be treated as though they are stupid. Because they aren’t, even if sometimes they make mistakes that make them seem stupid. Yes, it is slightly more difficult to bridge the distance between the two of you when you’ve got language issues and it might be awkward at times, but you can enjoy the challenge and laugh at the awkwardness. You can delight in their differences and learn a lot from them, and once you get to a certain point, you can ask them all sorts of questions and have all sorts of meaningful conversations about cultural differences. And here is where I make a cute comment about a goose costume to bring this rant to a tidy close, but I’m not going to.