Getting to know foreigners in your class

Salman Al-Mutawa

“When I go to the US, I am going to make non-Kuwaiti friends, I’m too used to Kuwaitis,” is a statement 60 percent of all students who study abroad, including myself, make before landing in their new home. (I made up the 60 percent figure by the way). It is a fact, however, that many Kuwaitis decide to befriend non-Kuwaitis when they leave Kuwait. Most however end up befriending a majority of Kuwaitis and Saudis, with the occasional Khaleeji here and there. This isn’t because of prejudice, nor is it outright racism.

As you begin your semester, you will notice that most people generally gravitate towards the people they have the most in common with. As a result, chances are you will find a higher number of Latin Americans and Arabs as friends than you will, for example, see African Americans and Arabs. This isn’t racism, but every society has a comfort zone that most people don’t generally step out of. Why would you go out of your way to speak to someone you barely have anything in common with?
I realize this information comes off as a little negative, but this is the reality of the matter. Speaking from experience however, there is a large diversification movement happening in most universities in the West. Which is great, so how can you take advantage of this and make friends from all over the world?

It’s simple. Just say hi. For Kuwaitis, this is a little weird, as we are accustomed to assuming that if a stranger walks up to us and says hello, he or she is going to ask for something from us. This is not the case in many other countries. Therefore, the best approach is to always assume that the stranger talking to you is being nice. But what if you are the stranger?

Go up to the person and talk to them. Practice small talk – talk about homework, or the weather, where the person is from, what languages they speak. Always smile first, and people will smile back 90 percent of the time. (This statistic is also made up – I am not a statistical data authority nor do I claim to be one!) So go ahead! Try it! Walk up to Kuwaitis and foreigners and just say hi. They’ll either think that you’re really nice, or a little weird, but this is how you build a relationship with a stranger.

This being said, there are a few topics that are of bad taste when getting to know a person. Here are the main ones: – never speak about religion or politics, never ask another person to do you a favor, and do not judge any opinions the other person expresses. Stick with these rules for at least one month, and you will notice that your silence on these topics breeds an unconscious illusion of trust and depth between you and the person you’d like to befriend. Once this bond solidifies, then you can speak about those topics without giving the other person the wrong idea about yourself.

Finally, as clichéd as it may sound, just be yourself. And if by the end of the semester you realize that you have not made any new friends, don’t waste time wondering why – it’s probably your fault. So take a step back, reassess your actions and try again!

By Salman Al-Mutawa

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