Chapter 1: The Quest for Pura Vida

How to Talk to a Foreign Exchange Student

EDIT:  Because of high interest in this post, I wrote a Part II with a little more perspective.

I moved back into my dorm the second semester of freshman year on the first day they would let me, a few days before classes started.  Since I was there before the masses, I ate lunch alone in a mostly empty cafeteria.  As I was eating my Lucky Charms (it was dessert, ok?), I noticed the three girls at a table close to mine had interesting accents.  I picked up my tray, and as I was headed to put it up, I stopped by their table.

“Hey, I noticed y’all have interesting accents.  Where are you from?”

They kind of laughed and told me they were from Mexico, Denmark, and Finland (or something like that, it’s been a long time).  We ended up talking and I somehow ended up taking them and six or so more foreign students on a field trip to the Square, the sort of central city area of Denton.  I showed them  the three-story converted-opera-house used bookstore labyrinth that is my favorite place in Denton and they took pictures in front of the court-house.  We ended up in a donut shop, trading cultural stories.  A girl from Taiwan told us what it’s like to grow up Buddhist, and another girl from some European country (I think) told us about a tradition where friends tie a person up naked to a lamp-post, throw cinnamon on them, and leave them in public for a while if they’re still single by a certain age. (Like I said, it’s been a long time and details slip.  I–unsuccessfully–tried looking up what culture that’s from, so if anyone checks up on my search history, they might get the wrong idea.  Have fun with that one, NSA.)

After that, we never became best friends or anything, but I would occasionally see them around campus and we would talk a bit.  It was an interesting experience for me and I wish I would have made the effort more to talk to foreign exchange students.  Now that I’m on the other side of the exchange, I understand how valuable it is to foreign students to have local friends. I recommend that people make an effort to talk to the foreign students.  You learn some really interesting things even from one conversation with someone outside of your own culture, and you also get to share things you’re proud of from your own culture.  A lot of people don’t, because they’re afraid of awkwardness or it’s too much effort, but this is my post to convince you otherwise.


  • Take your nose out of your iPhone and notice the people around you.  We spend so much time with our headphones in or our phones in front of our faces that we don’t notice when someone has an interesting accent or looks lost.   Not only are we oblivious, but it also makes us closed-off and unapproachable, so it’s impossible to make new connections.
  • Take initiative and talk to them.  Even the most outgoing people become hesitant when they’re thrown into another country.  It’s hard for language-learners to get past their fear of sounding like an idiot and any foreigner is a bit unsure about how to pick up on social cues because they change from culture to culture.  For example, anyone that knows me knows that I usually have no problem talking to strangers.  Actually, I was an RA last year, so it was my job to talk to strangers and get them to participate.  No one in Costa Rica would know that because I always hang back and hesitate to get involved in anything, even if I really want to.   Instead, my strategy is to sit by myself and hope someone talks to me or invites me over.  Foreign students want to make local friends, they’re just sometimes too scared to do it.  So talk to the foreign girl who sits next to you in class.  Ask the foreign guy watching you throw the frisbee if he wants to play.  It means more than you know.
  • Don’t overwhelm them.  When volleyball players try to have a conversation with me in Spanish when we’re in the middle of a drill, it stresses me out because I can’t pay attention to the drill AND construct comprehensible sentences in another language, but I really want them to know that I actually can understand Spanish and want to talk.  As I’m getting better at Spanish, I’m less overwhelmed in general, but I still appreciate it when people pick up on the fact that I’m having trouble.  Groups of people and noisy/distracting environments are the most difficult to deal with.  I automatically take the background in groups of people because I don’t have the ability to jump into conversations, and the noisier the environment or the more distracted I am, the harder it is to understand what someone is saying to me.  I handle it best when I’m talking to one or two people in a relatively quiet environment.
  • Ask them to hang out.  It’s not weird.  I promise.  If you meet a foreign student and want to get to know them better, ask them to eat in the cafeteria with you or if they want to go to that really cool homemade ice cream shop that no one knows about sometime.  If they mention they haven’t figured out how to send mail or they want to find a good bookshop, offer to help them.  Sometimes the simplest tasks are the hardest for foreigners because everyone assumes they already know how to do it.
  • Deal with the awkwardness.  It’s going to be awkward.  It just is.  Cultural differences and language barriers make this happen; it’s neither your fault nor the fault of the foreign student.  Deal with it, laugh about it, and be willing to adjust.  Don’t make the foreign student feel like an idiot–which brings me to my next point.
  • Know that the foreign student is not an idiot.  Actually, they’re probably really smart.  It takes brains and hard work to learn a new language and a good GPA to be accepted into the program.  Exchange students by nature tend to be adventurous, independent adaptable people.  Just because they can’t articulate their opinions and ideas doesn’t mean they don’t have them.  Give them a chance to say what they want to say, and help them out if they need it.  Also, if they look over-invested in a conversation, it’s because they’re trying to translate your words, make sense of them, AND formulate an acceptable response.
  • Be patient.  Don’t insult them by talking slowly and loudly, but if you can tell they’re having trouble understanding you or if they ask you to repeat yourself a few times, slow down and speak clearly.  It’s not their fault they can’t understand you.  They’re trying as hard as they can.

So this list ended up biased toward a language-learning student because, hello, that’s what I am and what I have perspective on.  There’s also native speakers and people with a super-high language level that study abroad, so it’s (usually) easier for them to communicate, but from what I’ve observed, becoming a part of the local culture still isn’t easy.

Exchange students are going through some tough times, and a friendship with them is going to have different dynamics than a friendship with someone who has grown up in the same environment with you, but vale la pena.  It’s worth the effort.

EDIT: One of my friends from the cafeteria saw my post on Facebook and told me the cinnamon tradition is Danish and your friends put you through it if you’re still single on your 25th birthday.  On your 30th birthday, it’s black pepper instead of cinnamon, and if your friends are nice, you get to wear underwear both times.  Thanks Nina!  (So the moral of the story is, have nice friends, or even better, don’t take them to Denmark for your 25th or 30th birthday.)


5 thoughts on “How to Talk to a Foreign Exchange Student

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