Anxiety in intercultural encounters

Anxiety can make intercultural encounters tense but very rewarding.


Not long ago some of my students wrote short essays about intercultural encounters. The most common topic was anxiety. Many described awkwardness with cultural differences, but those differences seemed less important than anxiety about language, nonverbal communication, and knowledge. Nearly everyone experienced tension, but those who overcame their anxiety were delighted by their experiences.

How can we cope with anxiety? Of course, preparation helps a lot. Studying foreign languages and cultures is important, and knowledge of geography and history can make a huge difference.

When we talk with strangers, the best way to control anxiety is to stay alert and to pay attention. It’s easier to act appropriately when you’re aware of what’s happening.

Small talk is a wonderful way to relieve tension, but sometimes people don’t even know if they speak a common language. For example, Japanese taxi drivers often get nervous when they see me because they don’t know that I speak Japanese. When I get into a taxi, I search for something to talk about. The weather, the traffic, music or news on the car radio—just about anything can be a good topic. And then I speak politely but informally and quickly, trying to engage them in small talk.

Nearly all of them relax immediately. A few drivers remain quiet, but most become very talkative when they realize that we can communicate smoothly. Even a short ride in a taxi can be a very pleasant intercultural encounter. (242 words)

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