Ok, so you know where to go to find international people in your city... now what? You find yourself face-to-face with someone (or a group of someones) who speaks a different language and has a different concept of socially acceptable norms. And while it all feels new and exciting, you suddenly are panic-stricken by the realization that you have no idea what you're doing and are in way over your head. Two of the biggest concerns in your mind are probably: I can't speak their language! and I am going to accidentally offend them! Well, these are probably both true. And guess what? These are true on their side too! But there is good news: these things do not have to keep you from having a beautiful friendship.
(Before I continue, I want to clarify that this blog series is intended for people who are seeking to have personal friendships and be in true community with international people. I believe the best way to develop these authentic friendships is through vulnerability, humbleness, and a desire to share and learn from each other. There are other blogs out there that are geared toward more professional business or political relationships, which should be approached with a lot of prior research and higher initial competence.)
There are three things I do before I first meet an international person...
1. PRAY. I pray for God to open good opportunities for me to meet people, and to give me courage to take the opportunities. Then I ask him to be our "translator" - to somehow help us understand each other beyond our different languages and cultural contexts. In my experience, this really does work! My Burmese friend, Pastor Meng Pu, taught me to do this. Whenever we get together, we pray this first. A few times when we did not pray, we became very frustrated and confused. Then we would stop and pray for clarity and understanding, and with God's help we were able to communicate much better. This gives the verse in Proverbs another level of meaning: "Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding..."
2. SMILE. Smiling - when it is genuine - is an universal language! It sends the message that you are happy (happy to be there and to meet this person), and have friendly and good intentions. It puts people at ease, too. If you accidentally make some offensive gesture or try to say something in their language and it comes out all wrong, it will very likely be forgiven if you are sincerely smiling.
3. Have GRACE for yourself and for the other person. Remember how I said you will probably offend each other? Approach your encounters with sufficient grace to readily forgive if the person "invades" your personal space or "refuses" to make eye contact. And give yourself enough grace to lay down your pride and make mistakes and look foolish. You may not know what you're doing, and that is ok - just don't pretend you know it all! Be willing to admit you don't know, and be open to being taught and helped. This kind of humble vulnerability is a way to honor your new friend.
Greetings are different all over the world, but the concept of giving a greeting is universal. If you are meeting someone from a culture you are completely unfamiliar with, offer a smile and "Hello," and observe what they do next. Do they nod, bow, reach out to take your hand, touch your shoulder, or move to kiss your cheeks? Like learning a secret hand shake, follow their lead. If they don't give an indication of how they want to greet, you can offer to shake their hand, as that is customary in Western culture, or slightly bow or nod.
Err on the side of modesty, honor, and respect, though. If it is a group or a family, it is probably best for you to address oldest to youngest, and men before women. It tends to be more appropriate to be more affectionate with people of the same sex, too.
Of course, first encounters may be more formal, and as you become friends, the greeting might change. For example, I have a friend who is from Egypt, and when we first met, we shook hands; but after we got to know each other, she began to kiss my cheeks when we greeted.
Make notes to yourself of the greetings you learn - become a student of cultures. For example, if you encounter someone from India for the first time and they demonstrate/teach what is an appropriate formal greeting, then try to remember this for the next time you encounter someone from India. They will not be greatly offended if you greet in a Western way, but they will be impressed, appreciative - and what is more important, honored - if you are able to greet them in a way that is traditional and familiar to them. (For Indians, this would be to stand at arms-length, bow with your palms together in front of you, and say, "Namaste.") To make the effort to find ways to honor another person is a great way to get rid of barriers and build bridges to true friendship.