20130129_151553As international school students, cultural differences and awkward introductions are a part of our collective identity. Being in a room of strangers is nearly always disconcerting, but there are tricks of the trade that can ease tension and help us gain new or interesting relationships. By polling friends, family, fellow diplomats, and businessmen over the years, I have identified three tips to cross-cultural conversation that seem to work for everyone, anywhere, and in any era.

1) Smile. It’s the most basic gesture, the most friendly, and is understood across cultural backgrounds and languages. In stressful social situations, the physical act of smiling releases dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin in the brain that lower your heart rate and blood pressure, and acts as an antidepressant. If you’re worried about your appearance when meeting someone, smiling is the best shortcut to attractiveness. When you smile at someone, you stimulate their orbitofrontal cortex, the region of the brain that makes us feel rewarded and secure. Researchers at the University of Aberdeen found that both men and women rate smiling faces as more attractive, sincere, and reliable. So for every business contact, project proposal, or – dare I say – introduction to a high school crush, a simple smile will open doors.

2) If there’s food available, eat it. It is no accident that first dates, business meetings, and holiday celebrations all revolve around snacking. Food provides the perfect overlap between humans’ similarities – we all eat to live – and our different cultural tastes. Tom Armour, who has been the HR consultant for a string of Fortune 500 companies, knows the importance of food. In his words, “Breaking bread bridges cultures more than anything else I’ve seen.” Eating with a stranger is the best way to learn about them and create trust, and sharing a meal can sometimes mean the difference between a company’s bankruptcy and a lucrative business deal.

3) Ask questions. In a new culture, or simply with new people, there will be plenty to learn. And asking a new acquaintance about themselves, their life, or their language will satisfy your curiosity, their self-esteem, and the gods of conversation.

Whichever method we choose, learning how to relate to others across different cultures is an important life skill, which all of us need to become acquainted with. As such, growing up in an international school is a great advantage to have in this increasingly globalized world.

Article written by, Mercedes Arndt, 12
Photo taken by, Nachi Kaunda (hyperlink)

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