How to Build Relationships in Multicultural Settings

When it comes to building relationships, we all go about it very differently.


Photo courtesy of jonathangarcia via Compfight cc

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?

10 thoughts on “How to Build Relationships in Multicultural Settings

  1. It is always hard to build relationships and multicultural settings make it even harder.
    During my university time I was always surrounded my people from all kinds of cultural backgrounds but I tried my best from the beginning to become myself a part of the whole group and to try make others feel comfortable as well.
    However the biggest problem was always to get the Asian community involved into the rest of happenings as they often (not always and not every single one) sticked within their own cultural barriers. They did their own events, meetings and study groups and avoided events with other people.
    I could never understand why they did not even tried to “join” the rest but then again people from other cultural backgrounds did not try to get involved with them either.

    As for myself I can say I was able to build relations with other students from all the different countries they came from and some of them even became friends and one my wife 🙂

    • I have to agree with what Crazy has said above, so I’m commenting here. During my university days, it wasn’t uncommon to see many Asian international students all sitting on one side of the room and the local/Caucasian students sitting on the other (and this was at postgraduate level). As you mentioned, language could be a cultural barrier. I also think cultural mindset has something to do with it. I remember reading somewhere that Asian international students stick together because they can all empathise with each other’s problems; the other races would have no idea of what they are going through so why interact with them often.

      Also, I’ve had some newly arrived Asian migrants/students said to me the locals in Australia were “scary”.

      I find it easy to relate with people of Chinese or Asian background, a bit harder to relate to Western Asians. Maybe it’s because I fit the Asian stereotype just like the former.

      Spot on when you say action speak louder than words. To me, meaningful relationships would mean having those meaningful conversations where we share our deepest feelings and fears AND shouting your friend coffee because you can 😀 To me meaningful relationships also means that you don’t have to be talking all the time – if I can hang out with someone and there’s silence between us sometimes and we’re still good friends, that’s a good relationship.

      • Mabel, it’s interesting what you say about Asian international students. I’m assuming you’re talking about Asian-born Asians, because all the Western Asians that I know are super sociable. Though It’s worth noting that these particular Asians have English as their first language.

        I like what you said about meaningful relationships not requiring discussion at all times. If you’re both comfortable hanging out in silence, that can definitely be an indication of a good relationship!

      • Yes, you are right in saying I was referring to Asian-born Asians. For a moment I didn’t want to name them. Once one of my Asian friends from Singapore (she’s lived there her whole life) said to me that she found the term “Asian Asian” offensive. I don’t know if Asian born in the Western world get offensive by the term “Western Asian”. But apologies, I digress.

        Almost all Western-born Asians I know are sociable too. They are not shy. But I reckon they come across as intimidating to Asian-born Asians sometimes, especially their outspoken personalities which is something the latter aren’t familiar with.

    • Crazy, that’s cool that you tried to make others feel comfortable. Every group of people needs individuals like yourself. That’s interesting that you say the Asians stayed within their own community… were they immigrants? Second-generation Europeans? I don’t know about Europe, but I know in North America Asian kids usually integrate really well into society.

      I’m sure your wife is thankful you were so friendly with all the foreign students. 😉

      • No they were mostly students who came to do their degree.
        I dont really know about North America except that my childhood friend (chinese) is living there for the past ten years and said that he never saw so big asian community’s before. These days he is mostly surrounded by Asians but then again I guess it depends where you live 🙂

  2. I posted on your Facebook but probably should have gone ahead and posted here. I’ll copy that and paste it here and then elaborate a bit.

    I’m trying to wrap my head around your post as it veered off halfway through and ended differently than I expected, and I’ll be mulling over this for a while. What would you say is the defining difference between a “depth” relationship and a “breadth” one? And do you think a breadth relationship is all about actions towards a person without one-on-one conversation? Or is there more to it?

    To me, the concept of “breadth” in a relationship brings along with it a certain sense of identification. I can “know” this group of people, I can identify with them, I can understand and “get” them without needing those myriad one-on-one conversations. It’s like getting a group of MKs together who have never met each other before. Do we know each other? No. Have we sat down and talked in-depth about our backgrounds, our hopes, our dreams, our hurts? No. But we know each other. We instantly connect. We identify with our common experiences of being raised in other cultures and struggling with furloughs and dealing with transitioning between cultures, and we get it. It’s on a large scale and not based on individual conversations, but there’s that broad breadth of relationship.

    I would say that your Brazilian family is a similar situation, with strangers being united by the difficulty of living in a new culture and struggling to communicate in a foreign language. Across the void of not knowing a person, you connect because you see similarities in your situation, feelings, or ___________.

    So if I were defining depth and breadth, I would say that depth is what comes from intimately knowing someone. From those one-on-one conversations, from those shared experiences, from deliberately walking through life together. Breadth, perhaps, comes into play when you are with a larger group of people and identify with them as a whole. Not individually so much, not based on deep conversation, but based on something you all identify with as a whole. You all know it, and you can bypass the more menial details of personality likes and dislikes. It bridges the distance without small conversations.

    • Great questions, my globetrotting friend!

      Yeah, I’ve been thinking about the “depth” and “breadth” of relationships for too long, so this might not have been the most coherent post I’ve ever written.

      I define a “depth” of relationship as the one-on-one connection built between two individuals. This doesn’t always require conversation, as Mabel pointed out in her comment about – it is entirely possible for friends to have “comfortable silence.” You could also look at this as the emotional connection you build with another person. This is what I consider “depth.”

      “Breadth,” on the other hand, addresses the connection the people in a group have with the other members. Another way to describe it is “unity” within a team. It’s the feeling of belonging. It’s found in the moment when someone makes a joke and everyone laughs. The topic may not be “meaningful,” but there is a feeling of camaraderie (and even a sense that you’re all family) amongst all the people present.

      Yes, identification – that’s it! It’s the instant bonding you feel with another person based on common or shared experiences (without needing even share them).

      I think depth and breadth of relationship are both needed in our relationships with people, and the latter is especially need in multicultural settings. Because there are usually language and/or cultural barriers in a multicultural group, we need to learn how to identify with the group rather than only trying to build one-on-one connections.

      Based on your examples, I think you’ve got what I was trying to talk about in a roundabout way. Haha.

  3. Thanks for writing, Chris! I think multicultural and especially cross-language relationships bring out differences in relationship building. This post actually validates some doubts I was having about a cross-cultural friendship. I was kicking myself yesterday for not knowing what kind of snacks my Mexican friend likes, shaming myself that after 7 years, these details aren’t in my brain! But could it be that the connection that we have has less to do about knowing likes and dislikes and more to do with level of comfort with each other?

  4. Depends on the country, area of the country and what things people share in common.
    As a Western Asian..born in Canada and lived in Canada all my life so far, it maybe sometimes easier to hang out with other Asian-Canadians only as a temporary social measure of “safety”/comfort.

    I actually found it abit much to figure out hanging out with HK born students at a major Canadian university….the problem was more language base since my Chinese is very poor and also socio-economic realities..these students came from wealthier families. Whereas I was from a poor Canadian large family.

    In Toronto and Vancouver, the Asian population has become super huge and highly diverse, that I am no longer convinced that all Asians would tend to naturally segregate and hang out with one another in social situations. I’m 55 yr. Canadian and have very little in common with others who are newly immigrated from HK/mainland China. Also being a long-time cyclist puts me in a whole other different social circle.

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