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Tackling Uncomfortable Conversations Abroad

By Janet Ngo

How do you navigate sensitive topics respectfully when local attitudes and beliefs are far different from your own?

American Jeremy Lipkowitz felt compelled to explain the definition of “patriarchy” to the abbot of the Burmese monastery where he was being ordained. Expat Jason Mak, who is of East Asian descent, was told “you don’t look Canadian” by acquaintances in Taiwan. Canadian Robert Sharp recalls experiences abroad where he’d been asked whether he and his husband were brothers.

We all have expectations of our destinations. But what’s often forgotten is that locals, too, have preconceived notions of how they expect American and Canadian travellers and expats to look and act. And while we might be working toward ideals of social progress and justice here at home, these could be completely different or non-existent elsewhere. This comes into play when we’re abroad and hear something we feel just isn’t right. Or maybe our visible “difference” (like ethnicity or gender expression) becomes an uncomfortable topic of interest. Maybe our less obvious “difference” (like religion or sexuality) becomes potentially contentious.

Whatever the case, if you’re about to work, study or volunteer abroad, you can expect to have some awkward conversations. But with beliefs and cultural attitudes underpinned by complex history and value systems, it can often feel difficult to navigate sensitive topics and awkward situations. Here’s how to do it in a way that’s respectful to local people—while still staying true to yourself.

Why do we feel nervous?

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a woman travelling solo in an overtly patriarchal society, a gay couple about to embark on your first “out” vacation, or a Muslim family headed to a predominantly Catholic region, interactions in a different country can justifiably make us feel apprehensive. Unless that culture is familiar to us, we have to learn everything anew, as if we were entering the childhood socialization process again.

“We spend years bumping our heads against things and learning the ropes of how to fit in,” says Saraa Lee, a California and Illinois-based psychotherapist who treats expats, and a former expat herself. “It’s a big journey.”

Lee explains that during much of our youth, we learn how to get along, relate to others, and avoid rejection. It’s a normal and typical process we all go through to learn how to connect with others. Add to that any particularities of our identity—a stutter, a disability or being a racial or religious minority, for example—and we’ve likely gone through additional layers of learning in order to more smoothly maneuver ourselves in society.

When we’re in a different country as an expat, all those years of socialization can become irrelevant and we have to start all over again, says Lee. Working out the dos and don’ts of a new environment can be uncomfortable; and again, we add to it the complexity of our aforementioned particularities.

The nervous anticipation isn’t entirely a bad thing, though. “[It shows] that you recognize there’s going to be growth and mistakes,” she says.

We might also be inadvertently focused on our social interactions abroad because of the hopes and expectations we assign to our experience overseas, says Lee.

For example, some expats who’ve always been shy might aim to break out of their shells while overseas. So, they might be overly attuned to whether or not they’re fulfilling that goal in their interactions. Other expats working as agents of the state, might feel a sense of duty to represent their country of origin in a positive light during their interactions, she explains.

Whatever the case, being aware of the personal and other expectations we have of our experience overseas will be helpful in managing our feelings about our interactions.

How to calm down when we’re feeling nervous

When we’re facing an external threat or an internal fear, our fight or flight response will kick in, making us feel nervous. In a social situation, how do we deal with this anxiety?

Lee suggests a mindfulness approach. By using grounding techniques like taking deep breaths and focusing on different parts of our body, we can connect to ourselves and eventually calm down. Negotiating social interactions from a place of calm means we'll be more likely to choose behaviours that will “optimally preserve space for relationship and also optimally preserve ourselves,” she says.

Lee also recommends journaling, which can be a useful tool to process our feelings, record difficult experiences, help us make decisions, or check in with ourselves when we want to reflect on our experience abroad thus far.

We should take note of any other mental health and emotional resources we could use while overseas, Lee adds. They could include personal coping tools or our network back home, which we can use as a support system. Ideally, we’d set up these resources prior to departure, and a therapist could be involved in the discussion to help identify them.

Preparing ahead of time to understand the cultural norms abroad will help us determine how to effectively interact, make connections and communicate, Lee says.

When in Rome: Respect customs and break them respectfully

Taking the time to observe and learn the cultural norms of a different country can make the difference between “surviving and thriving,” according to Tina Varughese, a diversity and inclusion trainer. That means not just knowing about them but respecting and adopting them.

In some countries, for example, drinking alcohol or smoking hookah is part of the process of trust and relationship building, especially for men, she says. Knowing this about the culture, we can then prepare to either participate or to have a plan of action that respectfully excuses us from it.

If we find ourselves needing to break with customs or cultural expectations, it might be helpful to talk to someone who’s from the local culture, she says. These insiders can help guide us toward the most culturally respectful way to deal with the situation.

Robert Sharp, who started his company Out Adventures Gay Travel to provide LGBTQ+ travellers a safe and welcoming environment while travelling, says respect for the local culture is paramount. Whether abroad with his travel company or travelling on a personal level, he makes an effort to follow local customs and practices.

“If I was to go into a local café with a romantic partner, I would want to be sensitive to the cultural values,” he explains. “The way we interact in a café, bar, or bookshop that’s known to be LGBTQ+-welcoming, might be different compared to a more traditional business.”

“Just by being respectful to other cultures and other people, the kind of conversations you have can open hearts and minds.”

Abiding by local norms and being respectful to the culture can create openness on the part of locals too. Sharp’s tour groups for example, have witnessed what he calls “accidental activism.”

“We’ve seen it time and time again where people exposed to our groups are surprised because it doesn’t match the perception they had of this community,” he says. “Just by being respectful to other cultures and other people, the kind of conversations you have can open hearts and minds.”

Understanding the culture is an iceberg

While living abroad, we might feel conflicted between our values and those of the local culture. If we have witnessed something offensive such as discriminatory behaviour, if it's safe to do so we could discuss our feelings of discomfort or ask the offender to stop their behaviour. However, we may also have to realize that there are limitations to that relationship. 

Being that there is a long and complex history as to how a culture and its value systems have developed, Lee explains that it would be an unfair burden on ourselves to go to a country and try to make people less racist or more LGBTQ+-friendly, for example. It’s more likely to overtax us than to create real change.

Whether we decide to take any action and what that action might be, is based on an internal negotiation process, according to Lee. We’d look at the relative alignment of our values, our emotional needs (the hopes and expectations we have of our experience abroad) and what the local norms are. The more aligned they are, the better, she says.

Expats representing their country through their work, for example, may feel it’s more appropriate to act according to their professional role expectations in difficult social situations, says Lee, and might remain diplomatic even when they disagree. Expats trying to make meaningful friendships abroad, however, may place a higher priority on interacting with locals whose beliefs are more in line with their own.

Keeping a healthy separation between ourselves and the local culture might be a good idea, says Lee. Sometimes we’re so immersed, whether it be in the nightclub scene or social justice work, that we start to lose ourselves. Finding ways to “check in” with ourselves can anchor us to our values and to our goals for the trip, she says.

Build awareness without “shame or blame”

As with life in our home country, we’ll have interactions abroad that could stem from a lack of awareness or lack of information.

Expat Jeremy Lipkowitz, a leadership and mindfulness coach who was undergoing study at a Burmese monastery, says he felt uncomfortable hearing misogynistic jokes during a talk by the abbot. In a one-on-one interaction with the abbot the next day, he explained the concept of patriarchy.

“I wasn't saying ‘You must change your ways,’ but I was saying, ‘Here's something you should be aware of. In the West, we kind of look at it this way,’” he recalls.

He’s not sure if the off-colour jokes stemmed from a difference in cultural values, a lack of awareness or other factors. Still, he feels humility and respect, along with their relationship of trust and openness contributed to the conversation being non-confrontational.

Varughese agrees that the way something is communicated is just as, if not more important than what is communicated. She avoids the “shame or blame” approach as she calls it, and instead takes an angle of: “This is how it is in our country.”

Canadian expat Jason Mak, who is visibly East Asian, spent 22 years living in Taiwan, where he was often told “you don’t look Canadian” by locals, especially in rural areas. He said he felt initially uncomfortable at the comment but quickly realized it came out of a curiosity about his ethnic background and a lack of awareness of Canada’s diverse population. He chose to simply explain that his family was third-generation Canadian, of ethnically Chinese origin.

Touching on the taboo

It might be helpful to recognize that certain topics will continue to make us feel awkward, even when we’re living in a different culture. Discussing subjects like religion, money, politics or social issues is typically considered too controversial for polite conversation or for small talk in North America and might make us feel jittery wherever we are.

We’re taught from a young age that such topics are taboo, and according to Lee that “our brains, being wired to prevent rejection at all costs” carry a deep, emotional response that discussing these topics will bring reproach.

So, just as we might think of discussing sensitive topics with only close friends in our home country, we should expect similarly, abroad.

Varughese says that as much as we crave meaningful connections, it might be unrealistic to broach sensitive topics until we’ve established a certain level of trust with a member of the local community abroad. This is especially the case in countries where citizens don’t trust institutions like the police, banks or political systems. Consequently, their trust with us will be built through time and other investments into the relationship, she explains.

Correspondingly, when we find ourselves on the receiving end of what feels like controversial questions, there’s a time and a place to use polite evasion tactics. This will help us avoid topics we’re not comfortable with or that we feel violate our sense of boundaries.

Mak, who owned and operated a language school in Taiwan, was frequently asked by acquaintances how much money he made. He eventually learned it’s a common and culturally acceptable question and that his initial discomfort stemmed from the norms he was accustomed to in his home country. 

“The main thing was to not get upset, and to try to stay open-minded,” he says. “I had to let go of the feeling that the person was invading my space.”

Feeling more comfortable with not disclosing his earnings, Mak either answered with vague responses, or politely changed the subject.

“There are some places where kind of a shy laugh and a little bow can get you out of a lot of awkward questions,” laughs Lee. Alternatively, just stating “I don’t know how to answer that question,” might be effective. Local contacts may also have tips on how to politely evade a topic of conversation.

Recognizing limitations and opportunities

For many of us, safety and self-preservation will be a priority when it comes to both choosing a country and living in it, with its anticipated social interactions, Lee says.

“As a Black woman, I’m not going everywhere,” she says. “There are places where my identity is not welcome. Some places are outwardly racist or colourist.”

She emphasizes the importance of doing research as to the countries we’ll feel safe in, and where we’ll more likely get the type of experience we're seeking, including with aspects of our identity.

Over 70 countries criminalize sexual activity between same-sex sexual couples and 15 countries criminalize the gender expression of transgender individuals. LGBTQ+ expats must either choose a country that is somewhat welcoming to them or conceal their sexual orientation or gender identity while abroad to stay safe.

If sexual orientation isn’t a big part of our identity as LGBTQ+ persons, we might have an easier time fitting in in a more conservative culture, says Sharp. But he acknowledges it’s not a pleasant option, and one he wouldn’t choose.

“We’ve spent so many of our transformative years hiding who we are,” he says. “It’s almost traumatic having to think of going back into the closet and having to hide who we are.”

To be open with our sexual orientation and gender identity, we’d need to feel a sense of safety in the setting. Sharp says he’d only come out if it didn’t jeopardize his career, social life or personal safety in that country.

On an interpersonal level, feeling comfortable enough to open up to someone would be similar abroad as at home. For Sharp, that means a mutual feeling of honesty and respect. He says the topic can come up quickly and be broached easily during “introductory” questions that someone might ask, like: “Do you have a girlfriend?” or “Do you play sports?”

And as with any interaction at home or abroad, there is always the acknowledgment that we just might have to “walk away from a relationship that doesn’t have some hope for progress,” as Sharp puts it.

Whatever the outcome, experiencing these interactions with awareness and open-mindedness will allow for personal growth and authentic interactions with the local community.

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