Making Conversation with Cross-Cultural Friends

When you are wanting to make friends with someone of another culture and background, sometimes it can be hard to find commonalities with that person. So often our friendships are built around a common interest or a common history. These friendships come naturally—but sometimes a genuine friendship with someone so different than you seems like it will have to come supernaturally. (Not a problem, we believe in the supernatural at The Serviette! 😉) What about when your international neighbour or coworker seemingly has nothing in common with you?

When I lived in South Asia, it amazed me how my American neighbour Harold made natural small talk with anyone from the man who cleaned the building or the driver of his taxi, to multinational business managers. Harold is in his fifties, but he befriended people of a wide variety of ages—taking men in their twenties or thirties out for breakfast or supper and chatting about sports scores, or visiting an elderly man in his home and reading with him.  

Talking comfortably with people who seem very different than you may not be a skill that you yet have. But it's a skill you can develop. Harold grew up in a very white, very rural American community and has learned over the years to converse with people of any and every background. I asked him to contribute ideas for this post, on how to build intentional cross-cultural friendships — both the basic conversation stage and the going deeper stage. I picked his brain for some thoughts about topics that are better to avoid, too. As I was creating this post, I got some reader input from our Instagram, and have sprinkled a few of your ideas throughout as well. I hope you'll find this post helpful! 

(Note: At The Serviette, we recommend that one-on-one relationships be with friends of the same gender. This can be especially important when interacting with people from conservative cultures. If you meet an international individual of the opposite gender that is needing friends, consider how you can introduce him or her to friends of his or her own gender, or invite them to events or gatherings where both genders will be present. If you don't have a "team" you can work together with to reach out to others, or if you have already started a relationship that you need to step down a notch, pray about it and involve some wise Christians.)

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Ideas for making cross-cultural conversation

  • Ask good questions and find something you have in common: Harold finds a topic he can discuss with someone and uses it to build conversational bridges. Some of the topics he often talks about are: soccer, basketball, cars, politics, weather, physical fitness, family, travel, or languages.

  • Talk about current events: Read the news and talk with people about a headline you saw, whether funny or serious.

  • Talk about family: People are often happy to talk about their family background, especially if they come from a warm culture.

  • Ask about cultural similarities and differences as they come up: foods, gender roles, clothing, celebrations, parenting....

  • Take up a new hobby or do an activity together: Maybe you've never been a gym person, but going to the gym might help you connect with people with whom you'd never connect otherwise. Sometimes when it's hard to find things to talk about, it's best to plan to do activities (like cooking, biking, crafting or hiking) together. Start making memories together and you'll suddenly have more in common!

  • Find something you can do for your new friend: If you have a skill or ability that you could use to help your friend, offer to help them. Maybe your friend needs a ride to the airport, or needs to borrow a tire pump.

  • Find something your new friend can do for you: If you are living in another culture, often asking someone from that culture to help you with something that comes easily for them (like translating something or helping you with an errand) is a way to develop the relationship.

  • Learn to listen and show a genuine interest in people: Ask about something they mentioned the last time you talked. It may sound nerdy, but you can even take notes on what you discussed so that you can remember and bring it up another time. Remembering a comment from two months or two years before, or remembering a preference or allergy, shows that you are paying attention and care about the relationship.

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Ideas for transitioning to deeper conversation

Some people are great at small talk (here's looking at you, North Americans) but they have a hard time turning those conversations into more meaningful conversations. As Christians, we know that life is much deeper than talking about jobs, family or hobbies. What are some tips for taking an everyday interchange and making it more meaningful?

  • Pray before you meet your friends, and during your meetings with them, for opportunities to talk about deeper things. Sometimes these kind of conversations happen on the first meeting, sometimes they happen on the twentieth.

  • Pray before a meal. If a meal is at our house, we almost always pray before it. If it's at a friend's house, we don't (unless they ask us to). If we're eating out with friends, we feel out the situation and decide whether it seems appropriate to ask to pray before the meal. I often wonder what our guests think about us praying before meals, and one of the rare pieces of feedback we got was this — one of our international guests told me that her husband went home and said to her, "We could pray before our meals like they do, if you want." They both come from culturally Christian homes and don't pray before meals, but had seen it done before.

  • Post Truth on your walls or in conspicuous places. If it's appropriate, talk about it. Harold would often read verses he had posted on his walls with his guests. Recently we had a guest who kept turning his head to read a verse on our wall, and a few weeks later my husband had a great spiritual conversation with his girlfriend.

  • Begin a habit of reading the Bible after each meal. Some families or individuals have this as a built-in tradition, that after a meal they always read a passage together or pray together. If your guest doesn't feel comfortable with this aspect of being at your house, I suppose they can find excuses not to come again, but most people are respectful if this is your tradition.

  • Share answers to prayer or ask to pray with your friend. When someone asks about something that has happened in your life, don't be afraid to mention praying about it or seeing God answer prayer. Or at the end of your visit, ask if you can pray with your friend for something you've been discussing.

  • Learn to ask deeper questions. These kinds of questions might feel funny coming out of your mouth at first, if you're not used to asking them, but if you practice them, they'll start to come out more naturally. At our house we have a cup full of interesting questions and sometimes we ask a guest to pull out a question and we discuss it around the table. A couple of ideas for spiritual questions are:

    • What do you think is the purpose of life?

    • Do you believe in life after death?

    • Where do you get your ideas about life and death?

    • Have you ever read Jesus’ teachings?

  • Pull out your smartphone. Yeah, normally we don't recommend using your smartphone while visiting with friends. But if you have the Bible on your smartphone, Harold suggests that it can be an opportunity to share a verse or story that relates somehow to your conversation. In some apps you can even show your friend the verse in his or her own native language, or in two languages side-by-side.

  • Invite friends to celebrate Christian holidays with you: Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving and other special holidays with Christian ties can be a great springboard into spiritual conversations through shared traditions like songs, readings, skits, or stories.

  • Share your personal spiritual journey: We have a friend who always encourages Christians to share with anyone about their own journey to faith in Christ. As he says, people don't ask for permission to share their story about how drunk they were last weekend or how fun their vacation was, so you don't have to ask permission to tell the story of how you found the One who gave your life purpose and meaning.

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Conversations to (perhaps) delay

There are some topics that are not usually best for a first conversation. Most of these will be obvious. However, take these thoughts with a grain of salt; they're not necessarily taboo topics, but perhaps areas in which to tread lightly until you see how your friend reacts. God has made people with such a wide variety of temperaments and interests — some talk about these sensitive topics from the first five minutes of the conversation, and some would never bring them up. 

  • Social status or finances: From your conversations and interactions, you will likely start to get a feel what financial or social level of society your friend comes from. But let them initiate any sharing of information about finances or social status. You'll usually start to get a feeling as you learn about the person, whether they're scraping pennies together for groceries and wearing the same two T-shirts, or talking about their private school education and flying to their home country several times a year. (I'm pretty sure I insulted a refugee friend by offering him some dishes we were getting rid of, because I eventually realized he is a wealthy man and hates receiving hand-outs!) But don't be too surprised if an international friend asks you direct financial questions; depending where they come from, they might think it's normal.

  • Religious background: It may be obvious right away which religion a new friend belongs to (hello, headscarf) but if it's not, you don't always need to ask. Sometimes I've found out after a few years that someone grew up in a Catholic or Buddhist home, that someone's mother was an angry ex-Jehovah's Witness, or that a person follows the Waldorf philosophy. Finding out these details often does help understand where they're coming from. But you might want to be cautious about how directly to ask about these topics. Harold suggested that a roundabout way of finding out what religion someone belongs to might be to ask what their favourite holidays or foods are, or what kinds of hobbies they have or clubs they belong to. (On the other hand, people from other non-Western cultures are often accustomed to discussing religion and it might be a topic that comes up in your first conversation — that is also OK.)

  • Political topics: People from Eastern cultures may be much more accustomed to talking about politics with new friends than we are. But sometimes even our different nationalities can make these topics sensitive, like when a Syrian hears that America bombed Syria last night, and is having supper with an American the next night. We have noticed that our Chinese friends have a wide variety of opinions about the Chinese government; the perspective you hear in Western news might be the opposite of what they're hearing from Chinese news sources. Be sensitive and tread carefully; don't burn relational bridges for the sake of a political opinion.

  • Dating / marriage / sexuality: In some conservative cultures, dating is not a thing, marriages are at least semi-arranged, and homosexuality is hidden. With anyone, these topics can be sensitive - maybe your new friend is divorced but many people don’t know about it, or maybe his family is pressuring him to marry and that’s why he moved abroad. We have an atheist friend who is probably involved in a homosexual lifestyle, but since he's never directly said so, we've never directly asked; it doesn't affect how we relate to him. Many of our friends or Harold's friends have shared really openly about these topics, but the conversation has usually started at the friend's initiative.

  • Children / fertility: In many cultures, a lot of pressure is put on couples to have children and to have no heir is virtually the worst possible fate. You know a person's ability to give birth is not what gives them value, so don't add to that pressure by asking too many related questions upon first meeting. Whether your friends have chosen not to have children, cannot have children, or have lost children, let them choose when or if they want to talk about it.

  • Weight: Did you know that in some cultures, your weight is a common topic of conversation? Not cool. Even if a friend is from a culture where weight is commonly commented on, I would not encourage you to comment on his or her weight. And please don't ask if a lady is pregnant unless she brings it up. I have one international friend with whom I talk about weight, and that's because he's been very open with us about his goal to lose weight, and I encourage him when I can see that he's slimming down. But that would never have been something we would have discussed at the beginning of our relationship.

Learning new styles of conversation

An interesting point that came up in the conversation on Instagram was that even the way we converse with our cross-cultural friends and what we consider "normal" in conversation may need to flex to accommodate our international friends' cultures. For example: 

  • What might seem to you like an awkward silence in the conversation might be completely normal to your new friend. Not everyone is accustomed to there being ongoing conversation for the whole visit.

  • If your new friend doesn't ask questions, this might also be a cultural difference. You can learn to share unprompted and not have to wait for a question to discuss a new topic.

Be aware that asking too many questions or talking too much might be overwhelming to your new friend. 

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Conversations with friends of other cultural backgrounds can be challenging. But not always! We have friends of completely different backgrounds who are much more comfortable to be around and talk with than people of very similar backgrounds. A kind and genuine way of living and speaking will be used of God as you begin to

  • make conversation,

  • go deeper in conversation,

  • avoid undue offence in conversation,

  • and learn new styles of conversation.

I hope you will find what Harold has found, what my husband and I have found, and what many others who have made friendships across cultural barriers have found: deep, supernatural conversations and friendships that transcend the boundaries of what seems naturally possible.