Throughout my time living in Korea and in the UK, I’ve been reminded on many occasions that there are very few basic common features that cross cultures. Such things as family dynamics, the relationship to space, and the way in which to nod one’s head to agree or disagree with a statement do not cross cultures. I’ve found out the hard way that the same can be said about friendships. Cross cultural friendship on the surface seem like any other, but this, in my experience, has been the source of naive assumptions and costly mistakes. These invisible differences can ruin the friendships that are so very important when moving to a new country.
As soon as arrived in the UK, I actively sought out new connections and friendships to make the time spent in my new host country as pleasant and meaningful as possible. Making Canadian friends is very easy based on our shared background. That being said, I don’t actively seek out these connections by joining Canadian associations or clubs, because the point of living abroad is to expand my horizons and not to limit myself to what I already know. When it comes to making local friends, it is very difficult to make good connections with locals because they already have an established network of friends, making it hard to accommodate new ones. The next obvious choice is therefore to connect with other newly established expats who are very open to making new friends.
However, when venturing into new territory and making friends with expats from other countries, I’ve made the mistake of crossing lines that I didn’t know existed. Worse, I crossed them oh so casually because the same situation would never have been an issue with friends from home. In one case, it even brought about an abrupt end to the friendship. This lost friendship really hurt because of the value I place in the few good friends I was able to develop over the past year and how stupid it made me feel to lose one of them in this way. I cannot however tip-toe my way through new friendships to make sure that there are no misunderstandings. I cannot question every action to ensure that I won’t make an international faux pas. Simply concluding that these rookie mistakes will lead to lost friendships is way too pessimistic for my taste, but then what is the alternative?
I’m sure you’re thinking, well isn’t this inevitable? After all, not all friendships last.
I would have to agree that no matter the nationality, not all friendships can last the test of time. However, when you are new to a country, making those initial connections is difficult. The fact that I spent every second weekend traveling to Oxford made it even harder to develop good friendships because of my limited availability. The friends that I was able to make therefore meant a lot to me.
In Korea, the situation was different; it was not a question of tripping an invisible line. Rather, the issues lied in the language barrier that made it hard to develop the kind of friendship where international faux pas could be an issue. Conversations could only go so far before both parties ran out of vocabulary, leading to good friendships, but of a different sort.
Looking forward, I am left to ponder on how to minimise my losses and hurt feelings. Do I stick to my comfort zone? Do I tip-toe through friendship? Or do I learn to cut my losses? One thing is for sure, I have begun to question my assumption that friendships are a fundamental feature that cross cultures and countries.