When it comes to building relationships, we all go about it very differently.
For many of us, relationship happens through conversation. Do you remember the last really good conversation you had with someone? It’s no coincidence that that person is most likely someone you would consider a friend – either that or you’re really good at making conversation with strangers!
For others, relationship happens through activities. It could be going shopping with your friends or playing video games with your buddies. We connect with others by doing things. Shared experiences (such as getting lost on a hike with your friends or doing something ridiculous with your roommates) are also ways we bond.
Regardless of how we build relationships, we’re all working towards the same goal – connection with other people. But what’s not uniform in all us is how we achieve that connection.
A few weeks ago, I was talking with a friend about the different ways that we develop connection with people. He was telling me how we often talk about the depth of a relationship, which is basically another way to say how close you are to a person. But then he mentioned this concept of breadth when it comes to relationships within a multicultural context – to feel connected with a group of people without needing to have “meaningful conversation” with each person individually.
This got me intrigued.
As I reflected some more, it became apparent to me that Western culture tends to gravitate to one style of connection. It seems that in many Western cultures we highly value the individual, one-on-one time. The quality of our connection with people is more or less based upon whether or not we’re sharing our personal thoughts and feelings with each other. That builds depth to our relationship.
This is definitely the way I do relationships. For me, relationships are all about having “meaningful conversation” – talking about your life success, failures and everything in-between. These sorts of conversations energize me and make me feel alive.
But that’s not the only way to connect with people.
Having interacted in groups where multiple nationalities are represented (and where many of these folks don’t have English as a first language), I’ve discovered that there are other ways to build connection with these people without having that one-on-one time with them.
I remember this one Brazilian family that I saw on a regular basis while living in Hong Kong. They could barely speak any English, and yet I always felt like we were extremely good friends. And it’s not like I had to sit down and have a “deep conversation” with any of them to build my relationship with them.
What was it about them that allowed our relationship to form?
Maybe it was their smile. Every single time I saw them, I was greeted with a smile that you would expect after having not seeing a close friend for a very long time.
They also took the initiative when it came to communication. Despite the language barrier, they still tried very hard to speak English. Rather than taking the easy route and saying nothing to us, they always engaged with us to the best of their abilities – often times laughing whenever they couldn’t express something they wanted to say. Their effort meant so much to me, even though our communication wasn’t very clear at times.
This family had such a big impact on me that I’m reminded of them whenever I struggle relating to Chinese people. Since my Chinese is only good enough to communicate (and comprehend) simple ideas and phrases, I often feel like I’m not building meaningful relationships with any of my Chinese friends.
Then I remember the Brazilians who showed me that sometimes actions speak louder than words. Meaningful conversation is important, but so are things like our non-verbals (for instance, our body posture and facial expressions). Positive or negative, these things have the power to impact our relationships even more than the words we use.
The truth is that all of us are fully capable of connecting with people in multicultural settings. Whether it’s with someone who speaks a different language or someone who comes from a different cultural background, it is entirely possible for us to build a relationship with that person.
All it takes is intentionality. Relationships don’t happen by accident. Like my Brazilian friends showed me, sometimes it takes a smile, and sometimes it takes a little more initiative on our part.
We need to be the ones to make the effort.
Have you ever struggled building relationships in multicultural settings? How do you build relationships with people of different cultures and backgrounds?