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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Integrating Into A New Community

March 15, 2012--Meisha

It’s always exciting to move to a new place, but making friends, learning the culture, and getting acclimated to unfamiliar surroundings always initially poses a challenge.  Here are a couple of tips to ease your transition and help you integrate into a foreign culture.

Learn the language: Language is the biggest barrier to keep you from understanding the culture and truly getting to know people.  Don’t take for granted that everyone will be able to speak English. And even if English is the dominate language, if any local dialects are spoken, it is invaluable to also learn one of them.  For instance, I live in South Africa where English is the national language, but I am also learning Tswana which is the tribal language spoken in my community. 

Minimally, before you arrive, learn greetings and “do you speak English,” to demonstrate to your new community that you are at least trying.  Meet-up groups and Verbling provide great forums to practice languages with speakers at all levels. Once settled into your new home, seek out a tutor or classes to increase your fluency of the local language. 

Create a network prior to your arrival: Before you leave home seek out contacts in your new home from friends, coworkers, and family.  Also, try social networks such as Facebook affinity groups like as Women of Color Living Abroad and Nomadness Travel Tribe, Linkedin, and CouchSurfing, to make local or expat contacts in your new home.  Your new contacts may not become your close friends, but they can be useful when you first arrive to introduce you to other people, help you navigate the culture, and assist you finding your way around.

Observe: When you first arrive conduct your own research by sitting back and observing the locals—the style of dress, grooming, eating, and social and professional interactions.  Adopt behaviors and customs that will ensure that you are respectable and non-offensive of the culture and avoid unnecessary harassment.  I am particularly mindful of how women dress.  In a Muslim country this is even more important. I also closely watch interactions between women and men to understand what is socially acceptable.
Dressed in my Nigerian best during a visit to Port Harcourte, Nigeria!

Walk:  Even if you have a car take the time to walk around. In particular, walking around in the community where you are living will get people familiar with your face.  Depending on the culture, many people will introduce themselves because they will know that you are new to the community.  This will also give you a great opportunity to practice those greetings you learned!

Recreate your normal routine: This is your new home.  The sooner you are doing the activities that you love and are part of your normal routine the quicker you will feel like you are at home.  This will also create opportunities for you to meet new people and learn your way around.  Gather information from your coworkers, neighbors, and landlord.  Don’t forget Google is always a great resource!  Hairstyling also offers a great way to meet women in your community or learn local gossip!  Also, do try to participate in the local pastimes and social activities.

Say hi!!!:  The unfamiliar can be daunting. It will take some time to adjust to the visual of your new home and the people living there. Remember, you may look just as strange to the people in your new community as they do you.  Don’t mistake the strange looks you may get for disdain.  Most non-Western cultures are pretty hospitable and open.  Simply saying "hi" and introducing yourself is as always a great way to break the ice!!



  1. I'll be a newbie when I move abroad this summer, so this is a very timely post for me. Thanks!

    1. Great! Glad you found it helpful!!!

  2. These are all really important points of advice when living abroad! Thanks!