Hanging out with people who don’t speak the same first language as you doesn’t necessarily have to be awkward, says Denise Li.
If, like me, you are chronically shy and/or introverted (I’m still not sure which adjective describes me best), having to attend an event or party where you hardly know anyone is the stuff of nightmares. Probably the third worse after having to speak in public, and being singled out to answer a question in a crowded lecture hall.
Over the years of attending events as “media”, I think I’ve learnt to somewhat disguise my awkwardness and I can even appear outwardly outgoing. But as I sit in a cab on the way to the event, I still play out worst-case scenarios in my head (no one I know attends the event; no one bothers talking to me, etc). Of course, it’s NEVER as bad as I imagine it to be in my head, and most of the time, I still manage to have fun, but the social anxiety has never really left me in all these years.
Anyway, the reason I’ve been thinking about this is because I’m currently in the town of Bruges, Belgium, to spend six weeks with my partner. As it’s summer in Europe, travel is prohibitively expensive, so instead of visiting the south of France and Berlin like we’d initially planned, Alain and I have been spending a lot of time punching things and rolling with sweaty dudes at MMA training. We’ve also been spending quite a bit of time with said sweaty dudes outside of the gym. And, if you think it’s awkward to hang out with a bunch of people you barely know, try hanging out with a bunch of guys you barely know who don’t speak the same language as you do. For the uninitiated, they speak Flemish (a Dutch dialect) here in this part of Belgium (Flanders), although most people here speak English well too. And while Alain and his friends do make the effort to switch to English some of the time, I certainly don’t expect them to do it ALL the time for my benefit. I get that it disrupts the flow of natural conversation if they have to switch to a less-familiar language.
Having been here for close to two weeks now, and finding myself in the situation on a semi-regular basis, I’ve devised a few coping strategies. I hope you’ll find them useful if you ever find yourself in the same situation!
1. Go with the flow
Initially, I found it hard to keep a frozen smile on my face as Flemish chatter went on around me (with Alain pausing to translate every now and then). Then I realised that being in this situation is actually not too bad for an introvert or someone who suffers from chronic shyness. Why? Because you’re not obliged to fully engage in the conversation 100% of the time! Sometimes, I’m really quite happy to zone out, or observe people in their element. I started becoming more comfortable the moment I stopped overthinking things.
2. Pay attention to nonverbal cues
Researchers say that body language accounts for between 50 to 70 percent of all communication, so actually, you’re not missing out on EVERYTHING just because you don’t speak the same language as the rest of the group. In fact, I think not being able to speak the language sharpens your observation skills. When I started becoming less fixated on the language barrier, and started paying more attention to body language, I found that I’m still able to follow the general flow of conversation. When I clarify with Alain about whether he’s talking to his friends about a particular incident that happened recently or discussing a certain subject matter, he’s always surprised at how I “get it”. And nope, it certainly wasn’t because I magically picked up Flemish overnight.
3. Nevertheless, a little effort will help your cause
I’m no cunning linguist: I can barely speak Mandarin despite having learnt it for 12 years in school, and my attempts to learn Thai and German have yielded little more than me being able to count to 10, and ordering fried rice and schnitzel. But now that I will be spending an extended period of time in Belgium, I might as well try and pick up as much Flemish as I can. Now that I’m starting to put in a little more effort into it, I can catch a few commonly used phrases, and I can count to 1o in Dutch … I just need to get over the self-consciousness of putting to use what I do know in everyday life. From my experience, however, people usually appreciate the effort no matter how broken or halting you think it comes across.
About the Author: Denise Li is a founder of Material World and a freelance writer-editor. Before that, she spent a few years in the Features section of CLEO and Cosmopolitan Singapore. She considers Chiang Mai her spiritual home and makes it a point to head there for a yearly pilgrimage. She’s also a fitness buff and enjoys training in MMA, and doing conditioning workouts. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLiTweets and Instagram @smackeral83.