Before we start, I’ll own the fact that I’m writing from my personal/American perspective. So if you’ve got something to add, please do. We’ll all benefit.
I very much liked my Dutch roommate, right up until we had to decide where to hang a set of shelves. She wanted them on the outside of the cupboard door while I thought they should go on the inside. She called my idea stupid. I called her selfish. Our disagreement intensified until I finally yelled, “I can’t live with you! I’m going to the Chaplain’s office and asking to move!”
At 19 years old and less than a week on the mission field, I experienced my first relational blow-up…over shelves.
In the 15 years since those fateful shelves with my very first Dutchie friend (in the end we worked everything out) I’ve lived and worked with people from 64 different nations, including marrying a Brit. These relationships have provided a lot of hilarity, deep connections, and a very healthy dose of my-culture-isn’t-king growth.
If you’re part of an expat community, I bet you have relationships with expats from different countries too. I’ve learned a thing or two about navigating these relationships – mostly that I’m good at giving grace to the people I’ve come to serve, but it’s easy to be stingy with fellow expats.
Sugar and spice
Cinnamon rolls are one of my most favourite things. Light, fluffy, loaded with melted butter, cinnamon, sugar, and dripping with icing: pair all that with a hot cup of coffee and I’m in heaven. So imagine my dismay when I discovered many other cultures do not share America’s level of cinnamon devotion and many think our desserts are far too sweet.
My mental train went like this: Not like cinnamon? You’re kidding, who doesn’t like cinnamon??? And yes cake should be sweet! That’s why it’s called cake! WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?
The answer of course is that not liking cinnamon isn’t really so odd. I’d simply taken for granted that the pretty commonly loved cinnamon roll of my country is not universally adored. It rocked my world.
There are loads of things like that, not just cinnamon rolls or even food. Things from my culture that I want others to enjoy because I enjoy them and find them special.
Now we have a choice – Serve it up as is and accept that the beloved thing isn’t beloved by all. Or, change it.
If you choose to change it, this can make you feel kind of sad. Don’t worry, it’ll be ok. It won’t be Grandma’s blue ribbon recipe, and you’re going to have to lay off some on the cinnamon and sugar, but now everyone will love it. Plus there’s a bonus: Seeing their enjoyment will make you happy too.
Say What You Mean
“Hi. How are you?” smiled the American passing by.
“Oh, not too well. I’ve been ill and I’m behind on my work and this and that and the other…” said my British husband who stopped to give a real answer.
A common theme among friends of different nationalities is confusion over why Americans ask how someone is doing when the only expected answer before rushing off is, “Good. You?”
The result: I think I’m being friendly and my friend thinks I’m rude.
If you’re in a hurry, something like this would be much better… “Hi! I’m just rushing off, but didn’t want to miss saying hello to you. Please excuse me. Hope you are well!”
As a general conversation rule, just politely say what you really mean and ask what you really want to know. You’re still being friendly, and now your friend thinks so too.
Our family’s playground mantra is, “We play with everyone. More friends equal more fun!”
I am the Mama who just absolutely can’t stand seeing kids excluded – mine, yours, anybody’s. It hurts my heart too much. I’m all for letting squabbling kids work out their differences, but I also ultimately want to see everyone playing together and cooperating. I know. That’s a tall order for the playground, and for that matter, for expat relationships.
Play nicely and try to get along, I tell my five year old, and I also tell myself. Because here’s the thing – some cultural traits are really annoying and you might be tempted to just stick with those who are the most like you. You’ll be offended by Dutch directness, frustrated by German exactness, and exasperated by British pessimism. But you know what? You’re annoying too. Americans tend to be loud, prideful, and overly sensitive.
In the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:18: If it is possible, as far as depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
Summing it Up
- Accept that some things you love aren’t universally loved, or change it to be more palatable for all.
- Say what you mean and ask what you really want to know – be clear and intentional.
- As much as possible, try to get along with everyone.
Of course, this isn’t anywhere near an extensive list, but it’s a start. We all know the world of expat relationships is complicated, but it’s also a richly rewarding one.
And even after years and years, when you begin to think you’ve got the hang of it, you’ll move to a new community and realize you’re starting from scratch. You may have known a lot of Dutchies before, but these new friends are counter-cultural Dutch Reformed, and that changes everything.
P.S.: I recently asked a Dutch friend if she had any cross-cultural training before moving overseas. Her response, “Not really about the people here, but I did have training on how to relate to Americans.” Ha!
P.P.S.: Dutchies, You guys rock.