Planning for Spontaneous Hospitality

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We’ve all heard stories of the spontaneous hospitality practiced many in non-Western countries. Some of us have experienced it when travelling far from home and being welcomed into strangers’ homes. But when those warm people who’ve always opened their doors spontaneously come to the West, they too often don’t return home with stories of spontaneous hospitality. In fact, in our Western world they often experience a “hospitality culture shock” of sorts.

This difference in our hospitality styles can be attributed to our cultural differences - relationship-orientation verses task-orientation. I live in Germany, a very task-oriented nation…which is filling with immigrants from relationship-oriented nations. A North African student recently talked about his experiences in Germany with me. “Most of my friends here are also North African. We can drop in on each other at almost any time. But Germans, no. The Germans are busy and protective of their time.”

“Busy.” “Protective of their time.” Would our neighbours, coworkers and friends describe us in this way?

When I hear comments like these, I wonder: how can we mix more spontaneity into our well-planned Western lives? We appreciate it when someone offers it to us, but it’s hard to make time for it in our own busy lives. As I look at our African, Middle Eastern, or Asian friends here in Germany, I realize: spontaneity is their language of friendship. A true friend will be available to you when you need them. A true friend will let you drop in on or call without making an appointment ahead of time. How can we be true friends to our warm, relationally-oriented friends?

My husband and I are learning a few ways that we can plan to be spontaneous — is that an oxymoron? In our experience…

Spontaneity in cross-cultural hospitality means keeping our evenings relatively unscheduled. 

We don’t lock ourselves into a Monday night jogging group — we can jog on our own if Monday night is free. We have only one night and one morning a week that are virtually always booked, and a few days a month where we usually attend certain events. But otherwise, we keep a lot of our weeknights relatively open, which allows us to be free on short notice…because nothing says “I’m too busy” like having to book a simple dinner date six weeks ahead of time! In the past year, keeping our evenings relatively open has allowed us to be more spontaneous — to invite a friend who passed an important German exam out for dinner on the same night to celebrate, or to quickly find time for coffee with a friend going through a divorce.

Spontaneity in cross-cultural hospitality means limiting certain friendships.

We could hang out with our Christian friends or church groups almost every night of the week if we wanted to. But in order to build deep relationships with people of other religions and cultures, we have had to decide carefully how many church commitments or relationships to take on. We sometimes have to also limit the number of new relationships with cross-cultural friends we pursue, so we can be true, spontaneously-available friends to the foreign friends we already have. When we can, we try to plan events where friends of a variety of backgrounds can spend time with us together.

Spontaneity in cross-cultural hospitality often means setting counter-cultural priorities. 

One of the main reasons that spontaneous hospitality doesn’t happen much in the West is because we are so busy with our “paid work” that we don’t have time for “unpaid work” like hospitality. It is good to regularly evaluate our standard of living and priorities, or to be willing to be counter-cultural in some of our decisions in regard to money, time and work. I am a freelancer, and sometimes people ask me why I don’t get a regular 9 to 5 job. “Wouldn’t you get extra benefits by working for an established company?” they ask. It’s hard to explain to them all the benefits we gain because my work-from-home schedule keeps me much more flexible.

You can foster spontaneity in hospitality by learning to:

1. hold your plans and schedule loosely,
2. keep a relatively organized, clean-ish home,
3. let people see your home even when it’s not organized and clean-ish,
4. always have something simple on hand that you can feed to drop-in guests,
5. offer guests simple fare or accommodations and not have to put on a show,
6. say “no” to some good things so you can say “yes” to the best things…
7. and much, much more….

The North African student I mentioned at the beginning of this post mentioned that one German student and his family have given him the gift he cherishes most: their time. That German student keeps in contact with him virtually daily. He invited the North African student to spend time with his family in their home. The North African student, who is a self-described “moderate Muslim” mused, “I don’t know if it’s because of their Christian faith that this German guy and his family take time for me. But they are the only Germans who have been so friendly and generous with their time.”

“Friendly.” “Generous with their time.” Could our foreign neighbours, coworkers and friends describe us in this way? Or are we busy running from task to task? Do they make the connection between our openness and generosity and our faith? Know that spontaneity doesn’t have to be as spontaneous as it looks. You can intentionally plan cross-cultural hospitality into your life by making some counter-cultural decisions. Let’s be known for our love — not our schedules.

This article first appeared as a guest post at Scraping Raisins on August 2, 2018. Follow Leslie Verner, the hostess at Scraping Raisins, and watch for her book about Cross-Cultural Hospitality releasing in 2019!

Interview #9: Welcoming a Cross-Cultural Roommate

As people in the USA think about heading back to school or university for the fall semester, I want to share this cross-cultural hospitality interview  from the American Midwest. A few years ago, Lisa spontaneously opened her home to an international student from Mongolia who was needing a place to live. What Lisa thought might be a two week or two month stay has turned into a more than two year stay, and a few months ago I got to ask Lisa about what it's been like sharing her home with a Mongolian roommate. Some of her answers surprised me, and most of them encouraged me! Lisa has such a gracious attitude about making room in her home and really in her whole life for Alyona. I hope you'll be encouraged by this interview with her. And maybe by the end, you'll be craving beef dumplings (and a meaningful conversation with an international friend) — I know I was!

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Lisa, I know you've had many different roommates over the years, but ever since I heard about your Mongolian roommate, I've been wanting to ask how you ended up sharing a home. But first I should ask, where do you live and what's your housing situation like? 

I live an a four bedroom, two bathroom house in the Midwest of the USA. Originally I was renting the house for a low rate, so I lived by myself and was really enjoying having so much space. The house has three bedrooms upstairs, and one downstairs — I made the downstairs one a guest room since it has it’s own bathroom. 

After I’d rented for while, my landlords offered to sell the house to me for a reasonable price. I hadn't really been planning to buy a house, but I bought it anyway, and at present I have two roommates, which helps me pay the mortgage a bit faster. One of them just moved in recently, and the Mongolian roommate has been here for two and a half years.

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How did you find a roommate of such a different cultural and religious background? 

I volunteer with an organization for international students. I had signed up to be a “friendship partner” to help new students settle into our city when they arrive. I had previously been assigned to various female students. It just happened that they were all from Africa — Benin, Togo and Kenya — and usually they were 18-year-olds who didn't speak a whole lot of English, coming to start university here.

Because of my involvement with that organization, I received an email in January 2016 at the beginning of the spring semester, saying that a girl from Mongolia was staying in a hotel in our city and looking for somewhere to live more permanently. I am not sure if you know this, but many international students in the USA don’t want to stay in a university dorm, and many come without a housing plan. They just expect to figure something out when they arrive in the USA, and this Mongolian student was trying to find a place to live. 

I wasn't really planning to have an international student roommate, but when I saw the email, a few things made me consider her: she had done undergraduate studies in the USA, then worked in Mongolia again for a few years, and she was back in the USA to do her graduate studies in our city. She had her own vehicle. Alyona, the girl the email described, was older and more mature than most of the students whom I had met through the “friendship partner” program. She didn't sound like someone who would need hand-holding. And I definitely had room in my house.

So you said, "Come on over"?

I told the organization that they could give her my contact information for us to talk about whether she could stay at my place. She texted me the same day at 5:30pm, and by 7:30pm she was at my door with a Mongolian guy who was helping her bring her vehicle to us from the state where she had previously lived and studied.

I showed her the space, and then the Mongolian man said to me, “In our culture, we’re really straightforward. We don’t beat around the bush. You can just tell us directly what the rules are and what the price is.” She asked if she could move in. I was still trying to think things through because it had all happened so quickly. I told her I didn’t want any guys staying overnight at our place, and I gave her a key right then and there. At that point, she really hadn't said much, as her friend had done most of the talking. So I really didn't know the person to whom I had just given a house key! 

The house was not at all set up for a roommate, and actually it was a bit of a mess because another family had used my house over Christmas when I was out of town. So a friend came over the next day to help me clean up and make space for Alyona, who was apparently now going to live with me. When I went to bed that night, she was not there, but by the next morning she was there, and by the next afternoon she had gone grocery shopping, put her things in the kitchen, and was cooking me dinner! I had not even given her any instructions about which cupboards to use or anything, but there she was with a bunch of meat and vegetables chopped, and she needed my help to figure out how to light the gas stove so she could cook everything! 

She was showing you hospitality in your own kitchen on the first night!

Yup, that’s kind of how it happened. And she’s been here ever since, for the past two years. To be honest, I never really thought she would live with me long; I was used to the African students who change housing often. But she’s often told me how much she loves living here!

Who stays in which room?

At the moment my new American roommate has a bedroom upstairs and shares my bathroom, and Alyona stays in the downstairs room with its own bathroom. The third bedroom upstairs is my office, and also has a twin bed in it that Alyona has sometimes used when she has a guest downstairs. Otherwise, my guests now stay on a mattress or on the couch in the living room. Or once in a while Alyona will come up and sleep on the twin bed and let people use her room and bathroom, like when a whole family visits us. And actually Alyona's mom and dad have both spent significant amounts of time with us in the past year.

I hadn't even thought of that, but I know that often when relatives from far away come for a visit, they come for a long time....

Yes, in Alyona's case especially because she's an only child and her parents are retired. Alyona's dad came for six months because he received a six month visa to the USA. Originally he was staying with some other people, but it didn’t work out, so she asked if he could stay with us. Because that downstairs bedroom area even has a door between it and its bathroom and the rest of the house, I thought it would be fine for him to stay at our house. 

Shortly after her dad left, she told me that — surprise!her mom had gotten a six month visa now. (The US government purposely staggers couples’ visas, to discourage them from overstaying, so her parents did not receive visas for the same period of time.) She asked if her mom could stay with us, so of course I said "Yes”. 

So at the moment, Alyona is sharing the downstairs room and a queen-sized bed with her mom. I offered to put a second bed down there for her, but she is content sharing the bed with her mom. 

Alyona is really happy that we have another roommate here now, because I travel a lot and she doesn’t like being in the house by herself. Her mom will leave again in a few months and she is glad that she won't be sleeping alone in the house at night. 

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Yeah, I think that’s cultural. "Warm culture" people like to have someone else around to eat with and are often used to sharing a room. What are the logistics around your house with your roommate? For example, do you eat together or who does the cleaning? 

We don’t eat together. Because when she first moved here she didn’t have a  job yet, she wanted to cook for me all the time. But we eat so differently — for example, I like eating salads and she eats a lot of hot meals, like beef dumplings. I told her that she doesn’t need to cook for me. 

Our schedules are different. I work from home and often travel overnight, and she's usually out of the house from 10am to 10pm at work and school but doesn't travel as much as I do. 

I told her that I would buy all the shared cleaners / detergents, etc. however, sometimes she buys those, too. She often asks me where I’ve bought something, and she buys the same thing when it needs replenishing. She’s also always happy to share her groceries if I need an onion or an egg from her stash. Sometimes for special events, like her birthday, and she made dumplings for us. Or if I’m having a party or having people over for dinner, she’s always invited to join us and sometimes we each cook a dish. 

Right now she has weekends off and on Sundays she often comes to church with me. She’s been doing that ever since she moved in. 

How is it having her parents there? Are they easy to have around? 

When her dad first came, it was a bit awkward because she’s gone for 12 hours a day and he had nothing to do. He was a smoker so he would spend a lot of time smoking on the back porch — something I hadn't even thought about before he came (laughs).  But at some point he got a temporary job, and then he was gone almost as many hours each day as his daughter. It was not a problem having him here.

Having her mom here has been a bit trickier, because she and I are both home all day. At first, her mom wanted to cook for me all the time, and she wanted me to be available to be fed at whatever time the food happened to be ready. I had to tell her that I usually prefer to eat my own food. Sometimes it’s also hard because I want to use the kitchen when she's cooking. (She sometimes spends five hours in one day making dumplings.)

Thinking about your house being overtaken by dumplings makes me smile! 

I’ve had to learn to make space in my kitchen for the dumpling pot and the rice cooker, the two tools that they use almost daily. And I’m a coffee drinker but we have tea everywhere in our kitchen now because Mongolians are tea drinkers. When I look in the freezer, it’s just full of meat. We don't have yak here, so they buy tons of beef — I think in the two years that Alyona has been here, she’s bought more beef than I’ve bought in ten years!

She doesn't expect me to entertain her, and I have to remind myself of that sometimes.

It’s taken some getting used to, having Aloyna’s mom around all the time. I want her to feel comfortable to use the common rooms or watch TV in the living room, but when she's not in the kitchen, she's usually downstairs in her bedroom. A couple of times if she's needed a ride somewhere or wants to go to the store with me, I take her along, as I imagine she must be a bit bored. But at the same time, I just have to remind myself sometimes that she chose to come for six months when she knew her daughter was working and studying full time. She doesn't expect me to entertain her, and I have to remind myself of that sometimes. Some nights when Alyona is still at work or school, I have taken her mom or dad along if I'm going to an international student gathering or game night where they might feel comfortable joining in. They don't speak much English.

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You sound very gracious and mature about the interesting situations that have come up, especially now with her mother there, but I know that often these situations are hard, not fun, at the time. Have you felt like you’ve grown in a good way, because of having this roommate who’s so different culturally?

To be honest, she’s been one of the easiest roommates I’ve ever had. She’s worked hard to do things the way I like them, and she notices when we’re running out of something or when the trash needs to be taken out. But I’ve learned that I don't really like to share "my space". It was fine to share the house with her when our schedules were totally different, but it's been tougher when her mom is here 24/7 and I can’t use the kitchen when I want to....

...and the air constantly smells of beef dumplings!

But I guess it’s surprised me how easy it has been, overall, having Alyona as a roommate. She asks good questions, and enjoys learning. She was surprised to see me eating lettuce straight out of the package without washing it, so I showed her on the packaging that it had been “triple washed”. I’ve since seen her buy the same lettuce. Or she buys random fruits and vegetables, not knowing what they are and wanting to try them out. One of her recent exotic purchases was a guava, and I explained to her how to eat it. She’s a fun girl. 

You mentioned her coming to church with you regularly. Were you surprised that she wanted to come to church with you? 

Well, one thing I’ve learned — and I don’t know if it’s just typical of her, or typical of her culture — but she never says “no”. She always says “yes”. I sometimes remind her, “You can say ‘no’ to me; you can tell me things directly.” But I don't think that comes easily. So when I’ve invited her to church, the answer is almost always "yes", but I'm not sure how much of it comes from her really wanting to be there, and how much of it is her being polite and wanting to not go against the flow.

What is her religious background? 

She did not grow up with any kind of formal religion. Her dad is Russian, and her mom is Mongolian. Both of her parents are well-educated professionals. I think she had some connection to Buddhist ancestor worship on the Mongolian side, but she would not say she is Buddhist. Growing up they just didn’t talk about religion or God at home.

At Christmas 2016, our first Christmas together, I had Alyona help me set up a nativity scene. When I looked at how she had set the it up, I said to her, “Oh, put Mary and Joseph next to Jesus!” And she said, “Who are Mary and Joseph?” She was in her late twenties, and had never heard the Christmas story. That blew me away. 

She had never heard the Christmas story. That blew me away.

I took her to a live nativity that first Christmas, with live actors and animals. It started with Adam and Eve and gave the whole background story to make sense of Christmas. She absolutely loved it — she was running from one scene to the next, like she couldn’t wait to see what would come next in the story. On the way home that night, she commented, “I can’t believe that all these countries around the world celebrate Christmas but they don’t know the real reason for Christmas.” Alyona spent Christmas with my family that year, and it went well.

Last year, her second Christmas with me, she and her mom helped me decorate the house for Christmas and then we went to the live nativity again. We had a really good talk on the way home, about Abraham and his faith and about how the story of Abraham and his son foreshadowed God and His Son. But I'm still not sure exactly how much she understands about Christ and His story. 

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It can be hard to measure, especially with your cultural differences.

Spiritual conversations had never been part of her home and life.

We have communion every Sunday at my church. I explained to her when she first came to our church, that communion is only for people who believe in Jesus and what He has done on the cross for them. She asked a couple of questions and for the first couple of months, she didn’t take communion. Then on Easter Sunday, her dad was there, and she said, “I'm going to take communion today.” It was one of those awkward situations where the service was about to start and I couldn't ask her much more about her choice to take communion. I quickly reminded her that it’s only for people who believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection for their sins, and she said, “I believe in Jesus”. On the way home, I talked with her about it some more, and we had a special Easter lunch at my house and used "resurrection eggs" to talk more about what Easter means. We've had so many opportunities to talk about the Bible, a friend and I even did a Bible study series with Alyona. We’ve had some really good conversations about spiritual things and she is 100% open. I think part of the reason for this is because she had a spiritual void; spiritual conversations had never been part of her home and life. 

And she's come from that spiritual void into a home and relational network where spiritual conversations happen every day. 

I often have to back up and find a way to talk about Christianity or faith in a way that is more basic than what I'm accustomed to.

She doesn’t feel comfortable praying or asking a lot of questions about our faith. Sometimes even the way Christians pray or talk can seem so foreign to her. Alyona has made comments before like, “You have such a close relationship to God” or “I like hearing how you talk to God, but I don’t know how to do that.” In living and talking with her, I have realized that as someone who grew up in a Christian home and has been so surrounded by Christian input and friends for over 40 years, I don't even know what she doesn't know. I often have to back up and find a way to talk about Christianity or faith in a way that is more basic than what I'm accustomed to. 

She recently even took a membership class at our church, but she said she does not feel ready to be baptized. She’s still processing that. I can't know what's going on inside of her. When I’ve read about Mongolia, they said that they’re quite accepting of all religions there. They seem to live relatively peacefully with Muslims and Christians, etc. in the same country. So she’s open to talk about Christianity, but I don’t know if she would also be open to becoming a Muslim or joining another religion, or if she senses that this is something unique and that God is calling her out in particular to follow Christ.

Have your friends taken an interested in Alyona or gotten to know her?

Yes, they have. I go to a super white church. They want it to be diverse, but it happens to be in an upperclass, white neighbourhood so — guess what — it’s a white church. But I don’t think she feels awkward there, which is great. A lot of the people have sought to make her feel welcome. One couple in particular invited her over and gave her a Mongolian Bible as a gift. 

My friend group has also been really good about including her. Even when I’m travelling or gone, they often try to include her in things they're doing. She comes to our small group and often commutes to church with our group. When her parents are here she doesn’t do as much with us. But everyone has been encouraging and supportive and friendly. In a group she is not particularly talkative, but one on one she’s friendly and outgoing. I think I’d probably be like that too, in another culture...

Yes, my husband and I are totally like when interacting in German, too — way quieter in group conversations than in one-on-one. It’s hard to follow everything that's going on in a group conversation, or to contribute something to the discussion when it takes you longer to formulate sentences. 

If Alyona were to move out, would you try to invite another cross-cultural roommate? What’s some advice you would give to someone who is looking to do something similar?

I would definitely consider having an international roommate again. I don’t mind answering cultural questions, like explaining how the flag on the mailbox works or why I can eat my lettuce without washing it first. But what’s important to me is that I don’t have to babysit my roommate. With how much I travel for work, I could not take on a roommate who’s 18 and has never lived in the USA before she lands on my doorstep. I would do it again, but only with a mature roommate like Alyona. 

Maybe it’s just God’s graciousness that it’s worked out as well with Alyona as it has. It’s good to be clear from the beginning about expectations, for example, to talk through expectations about food, meals, or cleaning. 

This has been an enlightening conversation. I expected that having a foreign roommate would be more complicated than a roommate of the same culture, and in some ways it is, but in some ways it has been easier, because Alyona expects you to be different than her, and so she wants to learn to do things the way you do them. Whereas an American roommate maybe just does things the way she’s always done them, without noticing that you might want some things done differently. 

Yeah, I hadn’t thought about that, but she’s been so great about noticing things I do or that need doing, and doing them with or for me. Even better than many roommates of my own culture. I hope that someday I can visit her and her family in Mongolia.

If you do that, you'll probably have some “Aha!” moments where you’ll finally understand something about how Alyona and her family lived when they were with you!

Yes, and if I visit them there, I will eat what they cook...not my "cold food" as Alyona's mom refers to my salads!

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.

Remembering People's Names as an Expression of Hospitality

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From the get-go, one of the most challenging things about befriending internationals is often learning their names. East Asian names seem particularly difficult for Westerners. It happened to us again today—a Chinese guy showed up at our new fellowship and sat behind us, looking timid but open. We found out it was his first Sunday at the church. My husband chatted him up and asked him his name and then tried multiple times (somewhat unsuccessfully) to pronounce it correctly. I heard the guest's name about 5 times, and within 10 minutes I had already forgotten it. But I need to work harder at remembering names, even Chinese names!

Not long ago I read a short piece by Mary Mohler on hospitality and she spoke of remembering people's names as a simple but important element of hospitality. I had never thought of it that way. She says,

"Can you associate with the common problem of being introduced to someone and immediately forgetting that person's name? Many people do not listen well when meeting someone new....and then feel reluctant to admit that [they] were not paying attention. The wrong assumption is commonly made that those who remember people's names are just 'great with names,' as if they have a genetic marker for that. The truth is that those who are adept at remembering names invest time and effort in learning them. Consider it an act of encouragement and yes, an expression of hospitality to call someone by name. Do you know anyone who is not pleased to be called by her name?"

"Consider it an expression of hospitality to call someone by name. — M. Mohler

Mohler suggested intentionally learning someone's name by listening carefully, saying the name to yourself or picturing the name, and taking notes that will jog your memory (if you are trying to remember several names). YouTube has lots of additional ideas for how to remember people's namesHowever, learning an international person's name can be especially difficult...although you may find that it gets a little easier as you meet more and more people of the same culture, because some names you will hear again. 

This is my favourite tool for learning a person's name: as long as the situation is appropriate, I ask for his or her phone number and in the process, get him or her to spell the name out. Sometimes I do this at the end of a conversation in which I have already forgotten the person's name. A simple, "Can you help me spell your name?" (and then letting that person type the name into your phone) can help overcome the awkwardness of already having forgotten the name, and give you a chance to learn the person's name before the next time you meet.

Try asking people of other cultures the meaning of their names.

Another name-related tip that I learned from Jodie, who shared with us about hospitality to Muslims, is to ask people of other cultures the meaning of their names. In many cultures the meaning of someone's name is significant. When you hear the name, it means nothing to you, but if you spoke the person's native language, it probably would. Lately I asked a few Muslims the meaning of their names, and this both provided a bit more connection with them and also served as an additional data point to associate with their foreign-sounding names. Knowing a person's name meaning can also provide an interesting conversation starter or a reminder of how to pray for your international friend. The two names I learned recently had something to do with "peace" and "star"—meanings that I can easily associate with a prayer I have for those people.

Mohler tells a story of how someone told her once that her simple act of remembering his name had brightened his mood and encouraged him in the midst of a gloomy time in his studies. Knowing that motivated her to keep learning names. You will also find, as you work at remembering stranger's names, people will feel God's love through this little act of love on your part. Something as simple (or not-so-simple) as learning an international acquaintance's name can build a foundation for a meaningful relationship, and express God's heart of hospitality.