How to Break the Ice with Your Host Family

By  Sarah Mastroianni April 5, 2011

Some ideas for finding your place in your new family abroad. 

Complete cultural immersion, which sounded great before your trip, can present some challenges to settling in.

While planning your trip, you were impressed by the brochures that promised you a "complete cultural immersion" with the opportunity for 24-hour-a-day language learning in the home of a local host family. So that’s what you, the curious and adventurous traveller, chose. Now you’re in a foreign country with little to no grasp of the local language, sitting awkwardly around the dinner table with a family that’s not your own and wondering why on earth you thought this was a good idea.

As someone who has stayed with five different host families in four different countries, I understand completely. It can be daunting trying to find your place within the family rhythm, especially at the beginning. Time may very well take care of everything for you, but in case you want to speed up the process of going from awkward outsider to comfortable co-habitant, here are some tips:

Play Charades: They say a smile can go a long way, but so can a thumbs-up, a raised eyebrow, an exaggerated nod or a wide variety of other (polite!) gestures. If your linguistic skills are lacking, give these a try to get your point across. Your host family will appreciate the effort.

Ask Questions: If your linguistic skills aren’t lacking, try getting your hosts to open up by asking open-ended questions about their house, family, food, city or language. If you’re usually not very outgoing, push yourself to make the effort. Remember not to pry, and offer some of your own information in return. They want to get to know you, too!

Show Pictures: Chances are, if your host family has agreed to have you stay with them, they’re curious about where you come from too. Show them pictures of your house, family, friends, school or pets. Along with sharing information, this will help them to get to know you better.

Offer Gifts: Present your family with a small gift that you’ve brought with you from home. In addition to helping break the ice and showing your gratitude for their hospitality, your gift will also serve as a pleasant reminder of you once you’ve left.

Act Naturally: Observe the way the household works and try to find your place within that rhythm. Don’t stand idly on the sidelines, but don’t overstep your boundaries, either. Try offering to help set the table or take the dog for a walk. Play with the children, or offer to cook your favourite meal one night for dinner. Let them know that you’d like to be included in the family.

Keep in mind, though, that there’s no cookie-cutter way to fit in and feel comfortable with your host family. The points I’ve made go hand-in-hand with politeness, cultural sensitivity, graciousness and observation of the house rules. Each situation is different, but the important thing is to shed some of your shyness and give it a try. It’s well worth the effort, I promise.

This article is the winning submission from the Verge Storyboard for the week of April 4, 2011. Click here to submit your own story!

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