Building Cross-Cultural Friendships in the First 60 Seconds

By Executive Director John Yoder

When you meet someone from another culture, do you struggle to know what to say?  Would you like to learn simple steps that will get that conversation off to an optimal beginning within the first 60 seconds? 

Let me share with you 3 simple phrases that you can adapt to fit your style.  First I will list the phrases, then I will explain a bit about each one.

  1. Hello, it’s good to meet you! I’ve lived here for <number> years, but I grew up in <place>.  May I ask where you grew up?
  2. <If they were born in the US> Wonderful! You are 100% as American as I am.  May I ask your family’s country of origin?
  3. <If they grew up outside the US> Wonderful! I have friends from <another country> but I’ve never had a friend from <their country> before.  It’s a pleasure to meet you.

Let me explain why each of these opening lines are so powerful.

  1. Immigrants know that many Americans aren’t glad they’re here. You want to quickly establish that you’re glad to have them in your neighborhood.  It’s less threatening to ask “Where did you grow up?” than “Where are you from?”  When Sherry and I lived in China, Chinese regularly asked where we were from—it was obvious we weren’t from China.  But no white American has ever asked me where I’m from.  It’s possible I’m from their hometown.  Instead, they ask where I grew up.  By stating where you grew up and asking where they did, you level the playing field by making their life’s journey equivalent to yours.
  2. For second-generation immigrants who were born in the US, it’s extremely affirming to hear “You are 100% as American as I am”. Clearly those born overseas are immigrants.  Equally clearly, those of us whose families who have lived in the US for generations are Americans.  But legally, any second-generation immigrant who was born in the US is as fully American as I am.  The second generation struggles with identity issues.  Mexican-Americans often aren’t Mexican enough for the Mexicans, and aren’t American enough for the Americans.  They aren’t fully accepted by either side.  You bestow honor and dignity on your new friend by fully acknowledging their status as an American.  Yet you do want to know about their ethnic origin, by asking where their parents or grandparents grew up.  That’s a perfectly legitimate question to ask.
  3. When meeting someone born outside the US, you may have absolutely no knowledge of their homeland. But you can quickly establish yourself as someone who loves newcomers.  Let’s say you just met someone from Senegal, and you have no idea where that is.  You can say, “Wow!  I have friends from China and Ecuador, but I’ve never had a conversation with anyone from Senegal before.  It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

By using these 3 phrases, you communicate important messages to your new friend in under 60 seconds.  You let them know that you welcome them to your community, that you accept them as they are, and find both them and their homelands interesting.  This will come as a relief to those who regularly experience either disinterest or rejection by the average American.

I recommend that you adapt these 3 phrases to fit your style, then learn them well enough to initiate any conversation.  This will allow you to make your new friend feel validated, affirmed and loved, all in the first 60 seconds.  Doing so will also change your mindset, as you hear yourself say aloud what you believe about your new friend.

There is much more to a relationship than the initial 60 seconds.  These 3 phrases will get the conversation off to an optimal start.  Now the real conversation begins.  In our next blog, I will share with you equally simple steps to initiate excellent conversations.