It was not without apprehension that I decided to move to the U.K. for my BA (Bachelor of Arts) almost four and a half years ago. I had many reasons to be apprehensive – I’d never been away from home that long before and I’d chosen a demanding course at a tough university – but I was especially anxious about one aspect of this adventure: making new friends as an international. I want to make it clear that I was, and still am in many ways, an introverted and insecure individual with an irrational fear of socialising. However, my fears had, at the time, a significant cultural component.
I was afraid that, because I wasn’t familiar with the national social codes of my new country, everyone would hate me and I’d end up sitting in my room alone for three years. Luckily that didn’t happen. It was mostly due to the amazing people who took the time to get to know me and made me feel at home in a place that I originally found intimidating and overwhelming. So here are some suggestions for well-intentioned home students who aspire to be like these amazing people – they should be useful even if the international students you’re aiming to connect with are not socially anxious disasters like yours truly.
Mind the language gap. Just to immediately leave any pretence of modesty out the door: my English was already good when I arrived in the U.K. – it had to be, otherwise I wouldn’t have been accepted into an English-taught B.A. course. Yet for the first few months, I consistently felt like I’d been deprived of one of my most necessary tools: being able to express myself in my native language. When speaking English, I felt like I had to choose between making my points eloquently, which required more time than I was used to, and making them quickly, so the listener wouldn’t lose interest. Knowing that my listener was willing to allow me the time to find my own words was always incredibly relieving.
I consistently felt like I’d been deprived of one of my most necessary tools: being able to express myself in my native language
Embrace the weirdness. The mismatch between what I wanted to express and what I actually ended up expressing extended to my behaviour in general. I felt like I came across as harsh when I wanted to be funny; preachy when I wanted to be thoughtful; and so on and so forth. A lot of it was due to the language barrier, but sometimes I realised that my friends and I had just interiorized different norms about what counted as a ‘normal’ conversational topic, tone, and language. I was always grateful for people who didn’t just dismiss me as weird and really tried to understand the substance of what I had to say – which sometimes resulted in interesting conversations about things none of us had thought of before!
I was always grateful for people who didn’t just dismiss me as weird
Aim for inclusion. I found it both shocking and hilarious when some friends recently revealed that I’d initially come across as cool and aloof – two words that I’d never use to describe myself. The reality of the situation was that while I could muster enough courage to say hi to a few people I’d regularly meet around my flat, I was too terrified to show up at large social gatherings. Things began to change when a couple of friends started actively seeking out my company and inviting me to parties and movie nights, allowing me to start coming out of my shell. Your mysterious international flatmate might be in a similar situation, so maybe consider inviting them to your next pub outing – which, by the way, does wonders for introverts in general.
Things began to change when a couple of friends started actively seeking out my company
Be curious. It is perfectly possible that you and your international friends won’t initially have much in common – after all, you grew up in different countries, speak different languages, and probably had different experiences. If you run out of things to talk about, asking people questions about themselves – without being pushy or disrespectful – is a good way to keep the conversation going, and has the double advantage of making people feel like you’re genuinely interested in them and enabling you to learn new things about them and the country they’re from. In general, curiosity, an open mind, and a good sense of humour are the key to making (international) friends for life.