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First 7 Questions When Talking To An Expat

5 June, 2012

Whenever I meet someone, across all cultures that I have lived in, there is an amount of small talk that occurs right at the beginning. Sizing up the other person and trying to work out if there is enough in common to form a longer friendship. For expats talking to other expats, the conversation seems to go down other pathways than otherwise might.

Living as an expat can be overwhelming. Especially if you are trying to deal with another language on top of another culture. Finding friends is one of the biggest coping mechanisms to making things seem right again. I find meeting other expats to be nice as they understand the double life “between” and the challenges of daily life better than others. In meeting many new people over the years the conversations have developed a pattern. I seem to ask and be asked the same set of questions.

1) Where are you from?

This is the first question that pops out when talking to another expat. We seem to order ourselves pretty heavily based on where we are from. An expat is between two places, so knowing where they come from gives a lot of hints for understanding the following questions. You get native language and potentially a number of commonalities.

This question, like many of these, is not isolated to expats. I hear them in hostels and among travelers pretty often too.

2) How long have you been here?

So an expat lives between home and host. So once we have defined where the home is, the questions turn to sussing out their relationship with the local culture.

3) What brings you here?

We all seem to have different reasons as to why we are expats. What that reason is does say a bit about who someone is. This is where the questions start diverging from “normal” small talk and into more expat specific conversations.

4) What are you doing here?

This is more of an optional question though extremely common if it wasn’t answered in 3. We start looking for more commonalities and figuring out what kind of expat the other is. Making contacts in the local economy is also pretty useful. This question is deeper than the more standard “What do you do for a living?” but related.

5) How long are you going to stay?

The expat life can be either a short term, time limited affair or an open ended one. Especially in Freiburg where so many of the foreigners come related to the university somehow, the answer is often only a few semesters. Since I have a job and am more long term here, it is nice to find people that have moved here and are trying to set up some permanence. It is nice to have friends that won’t leave so often.

6) How is your German?

It always comes back around to language. The woes of trying to learn the local language or funny stories can be one of the first bonding points. Asking about where someone takes classes deepens the small talk in that direction and gets some good info as well.

7) Do you like it here?

This one surprises me sometimes. It follows the small talk pattern because no one is really expecting the other to say “No, I hate it.” We all understand that it sucks sometimes, but we don’t expect if the conversation has really gone this far that someone is going to vehemently discount the experience. That is until I have this conversation with Germans. Every once in a while I get this question which sarcastic undertones and curiosity from a native as to why I could ever like it here.

Of course every person is different and every conversation does flow in its own way, but it is remarkable how often these 7 questions come up in some form or another in the first few minutes. It can even be almost like a script sometimes. Of course to develop a friendship the conversation needs to develop much further than this, but this seems to be the basis.

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Category: Living Abroad

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8 Responses to First 7 Questions When Talking To An Expat

  1. Audrey says:

    Hehe, very true. It seems most of my conversations abroad start that way… :) And then locals will ask you a whole different set of questions. Here in Korea it’s appropriate to ask your age and whether or not you’re seeing someone…haha.

  2. Edna says:

    This is so true! I have to admit, sometimes when I’m tired I avoid talking to new people when I’m out because I don’t feel like going through this old spiel yet again.

    • Andrew says:

      Ha.. Yeah it can definitely get repetitive, but so is “normal” small talk. What do you do? What car do you drive? Did you see the latest movie?

  3. Ryan Sales says:

    Here in the Philippines, the question you are almost guaranteed to get asked is “What foods have you tried?” I think it’s a childish delight to see how deep down the rabbit hole you have gone when it comes to some of the more “interesting” local fare!

    • Andrew says:

      That is one that doesn’t come up very often here. I guess German food is so “normal” compared to where most people come from that it isn’t a point. I like the idea of finding out how deep people have gotten. It does seem like that is the point of who conversation.

  4. And maybe I should stop pressing buttons before I am ready to post something…
    Anyway, as I was saying when I was so rudely interruped, I have been asked all of these questions and they all give me far more trouble than they should (and make me a lot too verbose for normal icebreaker conversation):
    1. Well, my parents are from… but I grew up mainly in… then I moved to…. now I am…
    2. Since August 2011, but I was here once before, about 4 years ago, so…
    3. My husband’s job, but I am also… and actually…
    5. Not sure how long we are going to stay… depends…
    6. (in my case French) I speak some, but not as fluently as I would like, and I seem to have reached a plateau where I no longer make great progress
    7. Depends on the day, the hour, the weather, the environment, the mood, the paperwork I’ve had to deal with in the morning…

    • Andrew says:

      Being verbose is not such a bad thing, but it means the conversation goes faster and further than just small talk.

  5. I am sure I have asked all of these questions in my time (and been asked

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