“Tell me about your family.”
A statement that seems so basic and somewhat superficial yet holds the key to true friendship.
Through many years of cultivating cross-cultural friendships, I’ve found that there is no shortage of people in the world to make a connection with. In fact, the initial connection is rather easy. When I lived in Asia, I connected with others simply because I was 1 of 40 Westerners in a town of 250,000; friendships began because people were curious to know more about the “outsider”. In the US, many of my cross-cultural friendships began because I work for GoTEN teaching English, and I have the opportunity to love them by helping them learn English and assimilate to life in the States.
But if our relationships never go beyond our differences or services offered, are they true friendships? I experienced this shift in my relationship with the Naz family. We originally came to know them through English classes. For months we visited their home weekly, tutoring them in English, playing with their kids, and chatting about their transition to America. However, the relationship felt oddly transactional. We taught them English, they fed us some of their home-cooked treats, and that was about it.
Then, everything changed. We needed language helpers for a class we were taking to help us become better teachers and learners of language. It turned out, the Naz family speaks the exact language we wanted to focus on. We asked them to meet with us weekly to help us learn to understand their language. Though it would seem that this might just be one more “transaction” in the relationship, it actually was the key to going deeper.
As the Naz family began teaching us about their language, stories of their childhood, culture, and personal life came out too. In each lesson, our language helpers had the opportunity to share with us a piece of who they are, part of their story. Quickly, our relationship shifted from being a novel exchange of cultural oddities to a heartfelt exchange of life experiences.
When my cross-cultural friend became the teacher and I the student, our relationship became deeper. Sometimes I feel that I have a lot to give. Indeed, my English skills and knowledge of life in America ARE helpful to my friends. However, as Scripture commands, “…do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves…” (Phil 2:3), I am reminded of the importance of a teachable spirit.
In my relationship with the Naz family, the key to friendship was to be more eager to hear their stories than I am to tell my own. To recognize that I have much to learn from them. To invite them to teach me about their family, culture, and experiences. Everyone desires to be seen, heard, and known. While we may think we know people because we have spent a significant amount of time with them, the truth is that we can’t truly have deep relationships unless we are more eager to listen than we are to speak. Inviting our friends to share by asking simple questions may just be the key that opens the door to true, enduring friendship.