3 Ways to Find Common Ground on Foreign Soil

We often hear about the follies that occur when international culture clashes in an awkward way. Like when I misspoke in Vietnamese at a local smoothie shop and asked for a cow meat smoothie (sinh tố bơ vs. sinh tố bò)

Also, when my professor gifted a white clock to his Japanese colleague on a business trip to Tokyo, which basically said your time is running out and you will die (White symbolizes death in Japanese culture, and the clock built upon that in a terrible way). The point is that we hear about bad cultural exchanges more often than successful ones.

When considering traits, emotions, and activities that transcend cultural boundaries a great place to start is at successful standardized international marketing campaigns. A global marketing campaign of this type often achieves its goal with one broad swoop across the entire world. Most of these campaigns ring a cord with an emotion that is instinctive to all human beings. For example, Coca’ Cola and McDonald’s both  follow an emotional strategy that can be understood by all cultures – happiness. Another example would be Redbull’s success with extreme sports, because athletic ability is appreciated and respected by all cultures. Just as these successful campaigns communicate and build relationships with people across the world, so can you. Anyways, enough business talk – let’s get down to the biscuits.


Deverakonda, India
Deverakonda, India. Source: Ron Hansen (Unsplash)

One universal symbol that expresses good intention and is sure to get you started on the right foot abroad, is smiling. This may seem like a no brainer, but you would be surprised how far a smile can get you. When you are traveling abroad in a place unknown, why not walk around with a big smile on your face. Not only smile, but avoid body language that sends the wrong message such as crossing your arms. This communicates goodwill, and often a smile will be reciprocated. Even if you can’t understand the language someone is speaking, you will always know what a big smile means (Unless it’s this type of smile).


This is cool just about everywhere. Are you not entertained? Source: Webdonut (Unsplash)
Are you not entertained? Source: Webdonut (Unsplash)

The success of the Redbull Stratos jump which racked up more than 52 million views, was broadcast on nearly 80 TV stations in 50 countries, and broke the YouTube streaming record is proof that sports are a global cross cultural phenomenon. If you are trying to make friends in a foreign land, why not take a soccer (futbol) ball to a local park and see how long it  takes you to make a handful of buddies. Go to a local bar to watch a few premier league games, and you will find people from a host of different countries all enjoying the game side by side. If you are a chauvinist American that thinks American Football is the end all be all – get over it because soccer is the most viewed sport in the world.  All across the world athletic ability is appreciated, which is why the Olympics is the 2nd most viewed sporting event globally, second only to the Fifa World Cup of course.


Love is Universal
Love is Universal. Source: Mayur Gala (Unsplash)

He who fights is powerless, but he who loves is power itself.

Love and compassion are powerful universal emotions. So powerful that compassion not only transcends different people from all walks of life, but also different species. If you don’t believe me, go watch this video of babies playing with dogs. That probably just melted your heart. Additionally, Valentine’s day is one of the most globally celebrated holidays with a recent Rankun survey predicting that 53% of Taiwanese people, 67% of Indonesians, and 45% of all Singaporeans celebrated Valentine’s day in 2015. If you are living abroad and are trying to make new friends or bond with some locals in your neighborhood you could consider showing compassion to them through a kind act. For example, you could share some food or beer with a group of locals at an outdoor restaurant or you could give a free English lesson to an eager college student who is trying to learn English to advance their career in international business. If you do a good deed for a local while living abroad there is a high probability that this will not only build a friendship, but also lead to a reciprocated deed that could give you a once in a lifetime experience (i.e. Getting invited to a delicious family dinner with a Vietnamese family).

In a Nutshell

Every culture is different and unique in its own way. Going to another country and assuming anything before doing your research opens you up to a host of complications, including a negative culture clashing experience. However, if you stay positive, show compassion, and try to find common ground with various people of different cultures, more than likely you will have good outcomes. As always, be sure to check for specific things that are offensive (i.e. the death clock), but other than that we are all humans and there are many aspects that make us innately similar.