The Day I Decided to Become a Student of Culture {The Grove: Share}

When we have an intern come and join our team, one of the first things I tell them about cultural adaptation is this:

“Come here as a student. Not as a teacher.”

The benefit of having been on the field for seven years now is that I’ve learned a lot, and most people who live abroad will tell you there’s only one way to learn – make a lot of mistakes.

I walked into my life in France sure that everyone would be impressed with me for being American. (This is embarrassing for me to admit, forgive me.) I was sure that everyone was fascinated with my culture, that they wanted to befriend a real American and find out what life in America was like.

This all came to a screeching halt after church one Sunday when someone asked me where I’m from. “Indianapolis,” I responded. “Ah, okay. And where is that?” I was shocked they had never heard of it. “It’s in Indiana,” I responded. “Ah…Indiana…is it near California?”

As I walked away from this conversation, I turned over in my mind the fact that not only had this person never heard of my city, my entire state was unknown to them. I had felt so self-important. I also began to realize that the people in my international community in Paris knew much more about my life as an American than I knew about them. While much of American life is sensationalized in the media we leak out to the world, they have a good feel for it. I, on the other hand, was embarrassed to realize that I had not asked my Congolese friend anything about their own culture that day. And I certainly knew less about their day-to-day life there than they knew about mine. “I have so much more to learn than I have to teach,” I said to myself.

This moment in my process of cultural adaptation was a turning point for me. I became someone who asked questions. I became someone who was constantly striving to learn rather than to teach. I began to ask questions of my friends about their homes rather than sharing with them about mine.

Some time back I was speaking to some students who were interested in overseas work and they asked me how they could build better relationships with the international students on their campus. As I began to share with them, I realized how far I had come in being able to engage with people who had lived very different lives than my own. It wasn’t until they pulled out their notebooks and pens to take notes that I realized how valuable a lesson I have been afforded. If I had not taken a moment that day to admit to myself that I was being selfish – that I was limiting my own growth – I would have missed out on so many friendships that have boundlessly enriched my life.

So maybe you are reading this and you are adapting to a new culture or maybe you want to know how to befriend someone in your dorm or your workplace who is different than you. Here are some things that have helped me open up conversations about beautiful cultural differences:

1. Watch and learn. So much of learning a culture is committing to observation. Be intentional about watching how people interact. Americans tend to burst into a room, yell when they see a friend, and hug. The French are much more subtle, kissing each cheek and greeting one another quietly. People from different cultures interact differently. If you are bent on forcing people to hug or always asking people to come into your world culturally, you will miss so much. Hold yourself back – if you are abroad, go to a cafe or restaurant alone and just watch people.

2. Share a meal together. Food is one of the most incredible ways to share your life with someone. Ask them to make you a regional dish, whether that is fried plantains or something a little too spicy that has you grabbing for the water after every bite. Then invite them over for something that is comfort food for you. This will open up so many conversations – things you never thought to talk or ask about.

3. Ask them questions. Of course this has to be done in the appropriate cultural context. In France, you don’t ask personal questions straight away. But once you’ve built a relationship, I like to ask some of the following questions to open up conversation:

  • What kind of food does your mom make you when you come home? Or when you’re sick?
  • What holidays do you celebrate (religious or national)? (If you are unfamiliar with the holiday, ask what the holiday is for and what they do to observe it.)
  • What did you and your friends do together when you were teenagers?
  • What would happen if you got in trouble and were disciplined?
  • What does a wedding look like in your culture? What does a funeral look like?
  • (Note: It’s likely that after they answer they will return the question back to you. Answer it but make sure you don’t use it as a launching point to talk forever about your own culture)

As embarrassed as I often am to tell this story of a turning point in my life, my life has been made exponentially richer by admitting to myself that actually, I walked in quite self-absorbed. By allowing myself to learn and change I have formed beautiful and deep friendships. There is such power in allowing yourself to change.

How have you engaged with people from a different culture or lifestyle than your own? When you think back over past conversations, are you normally in teaching mode or learning mode? How can you better learn from the people around you?


This is The Grove and we want to hear from you! You can link up your blog post, or share your practices, ponderings, wisdom, questions, ideas, and creative expressions with us in the comments below.

Here’s our Instagram collection from this week using #VelvetAshesShare. You can add yours!


  1. Shelly Miller August 3, 2017

    This is so good Kelly, some food for thought as an expat in London. We serve a church representing over 50 countries so there is a lot of room for learning and growing in such a diverse culture. I often find myself recounting conversations, worried that I’ve been a little too much for people. At the same time, being an assertive hospitable American is rather endearing to the English who are known for their cautious, reserved nature. Welcoming newcomers on Sunday morning, it turns out, is my gift!!

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