Get Out There

04 Engage

Get Out There

Engaging and Adjusting
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Introduction

Whether you’re getting ready to go to a new location or you’re already there, eventually you’ll have to head out into the world and participate.

Up to this point we’ve covered some of the basic methods to help you prepare for cross-cultural interactions and difficult questions, but here is where all that preparation and your new knowledge comes into play.

By getting out there, talking to people, and practicing the mindset and tactics for effective cross-cultural communication, you’ll get more comfortable—even when it’s necessary to disengage.

This section will cover first impressions and how you might be perceived. It will then break down the components that go into the act of communication itself. Finally, we will present you with a number of tips to help you to engage with or disengage from difficult questions.
This section covers the During phase of the interaction cycle. When you’re actively engaging in cross-cultural exchanges, there are a number of things you can do to sharpen your skills.
Interaction cycle with During highlighted.

During Immersion in a New Culture

  • Engage with a variety of people to experience a broad spectrum of communication styles and situations (neighbors, coworkers, shopkeepers, service providers).
  • The more people you talk with the more you will learn about the people, culture, current events, and social norms. This will accelerate your adaptation process.
  • Continue to consult with your “cultural informants” to discuss your ongoing experiences.
  • Your “cultural informant” can help you process your experiences and establish a deeper understanding of local communication styles and nuances.
  • Continue to learn the basics of the language. Ask for translations or interpretations for unfamiliar words or expressions.
  • With more frequent exposure to the language, you will begin to learn faster and have more opportunities to use it.
Select the arrow to the side to see how these tips will help you answer difficult questions.

First Impressions

Take a minute and look at each of these people.

Caucasian manAfrican American womanAfrican childAsian womanIndian man

What’s your initial reaction to each of them?

Where do you think each reaction comes from?

Prior to any direct communication, people make judgments that are formulated from their first impressions. This happens everywhere and even though it may not be very accurate, a first impression can be lasting.

Closet filled with different types of clothes.

From the moment you step out the front door, what you’re wearing and how you act and react to things broadcasts information to the people around you.

So when you’re out and about the people you encounter will be making judgments about you based on how you appear to them. Everyone’s judgements are different.

How you carry yourself and what you wear can affect others’ assumptions about you as well as how they approach you.

People holding an American flag

Keep in mind that, to people from other cultures, you may be easily identified as American by the way you look, dress, walk, and act in public. The language that you speak and your accent could also be a giveaway.

A number of factors could influence what it is they see and assume. This will depend on the individual, their culture in general, and the current state of relations between your two countries.

A wide range of opinions about the United States and Americans exists at any given moment and those opinions may get placed upon you simply because of how you are seen.

Whether you embrace it or not, you will be seen as an unofficial representative of the United States. As an informal ambassador for your country, you want to leave a good impression.

PDF icon View tips for style switching.

Three Steps

As you prepare to answer difficult questions from people addressing you as an individual and a representative of the United States, you can follow a three step process: observe, interact, and adjust. These steps will prove helpful in building your skills and confidence, and in providing you with a range of options for how to respond.

1. ObserveObserve icon
2. InteractInteract icon
3. AdjustAdjust icon

In the scenarios that follow, we’ll give you an example of a common situation in which you could encounter a difficult question and break it down into the three steps. You’ll be asked to make decisions along the way. Normally you will not have the luxury of endless time to review your options, but you do have that luxury here.

Keep in mind what you’ve learned about cross-cultural communication and the attitudes you should be trying to foster as you make your selections.

An illustrated globe with various world landmarks.

Observe

When you observe someone, your initial impressions quickly provide a lot of information. Sometimes you will know immediately if choosing to engage was a good decision, and other times it will take some back and forth conversation in order to get a better sense of the other person.

As you review the scenario in the slideshow, select the hotspots to follow the interaction.

In your new host culture, a friend has invited you to accompany her to a casual party. You have met some of the guests before but you don’t know anyone well. You take a look around to get a feel for things.

A man sitting on a bench thinking

Try to keep yourself open to engaging with new people, but know that it’s okay to avoid communicating if it’s something you don’t want to do, regardless of how well-meaning the other person is or seems to be. Sometimes we have bad days, and if you’re not careful, your bad day could be reflected when you try to communicate.

It’s okay to take a break. In some cases, politely moving on from a conversation may help you avoid making a bad impression or engaging in conflict.

Interact

After you’ve observed the setting and decided that you’re willing to engage, you’ll have to rely on your understanding of the cultural and communication norms as well as your working knowledge of the language, if it’s different from your native tongue. For this scenario we’ll assume that you’ll be speaking English with Angela.

As you review the scenario in the slideshow, select the hotspots to follow the interaction.

As you begin to converse with Angela, you continue absorbing information—from her verbal responses to her non-verbal cues, and other details from the surroundings.

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When responding to difficult questions, whether with someone you know or someone you just met, you always have options.

Black shoes standing at a crossroad.

You may decide to fully engage and present your personal opinion or experience, redirect the conversation, answer using humor, choose to deflect or redirect the conversation, or disengage entirely.

PDF icon View tips for engaging and disengaging.

Difficult Questions Toolkit

As you interact and respond to difficult questions, you will need a toolkit of techniques to respond to these questions without offending the person you’re speaking to or misrepresenting the United States. Here are a few techniques that you should be prepared to use.

1.Relate to and emphasize shared cultural values.
Find a way to connect the question and your answer to a shared value and highlight how you could both see things the same way. Doing this successfully will rely on the cultural homework you did beforehand.
2.Redefine the question.
If you do not feel comfortable answering the question posed to you, rephrase the question into one you feel comfortable answering.
3.Pivot to the future.
The United States isn’t perfect. You can expect people to question our past and current state. Direct the conversation to our future goals and aspirations to help dissolve the tension.
4.Address stereotypes.
The question you’re being presented with may be rooted in a stereotype of American culture. Acknowledge that stereotype in your response and pivot from there to address the question.
5.Use examples from American history.
The historic events, places, and people of the United States have shaped this country and its cultural values. If a value is being questioned, refer to a moment in history that helped form this value and caused it to last into the future.
6.Ask questions.
Use questions to further clarify what they are asking and perhaps why they are asking you. This will help you craft an answer in direct response to what they are inquiring about. This can also show that you are interested in what the other person is asking and help defer from the original question.
7.Agree to disagree.
Sometimes, it may be impossible to find a common ground with the person you are speaking with. Agreeing to disagree is an excellent method towards diffusing particularly difficult questions or situations.
8.Admit you are unsure of the answer.
If you’re presented with a particularly sensitive question, you may want to admit that you are unsure of the answer and are open to interpretation.
A long road demonstrating distance.

Whether or not you respond at all as well as how you respond will depend on your mood, the demeanor of the person you are communicating with, the topic of conversation, the context, and the environment.

If someone raises an issue that affects you emotionally, do your best to avoid taking personal offense. If you can keep your distance and maintain objectivity, you will likely be able to defuse the situation.

Adjust

You might have already done some adjusting of your communication preferences when choosing to engage in conversation. But once you start talking, you gather more clues, then you assess whether you need to adjust further.

As you review the scenario in the slideshow, select the hotspots to follow the interaction.

As you converse a bit with Angela, a more well-rounded picture of her emerges.

Communication Preferences

  • Speaks softly
  • Maintains close proximity
  • Inconsistent eye contact
  • Does not interrupt
  • Posture is relaxed
  • Very little physical feedback while you speak

Your Assessment

Angela seems genuinely interested in American films and culture. She asks questions in an intellectually curious way. She knows a lot about cinema. Her tone is conversational and non-threatening.

Person looking at an American flag inside the 9/11 memorial.

Often times people are genuinely curious and want to know more about you and American culture. Their personal background and cultural context will influence how they approach things, as will yours. Certain topics might be difficult to address.

How much you want to divulge, if anything at all, will depend entirely on your read of the situation and your level of comfort.

8 Communication Tips for Handling Difficult Situations

Here are some helpful tips to consider:

1. Always be polite and respectful when responding.
Remember that you may be seen as answering for yourself and/or representing all Americans.
2. Understand the question that is being asked.
Take a moment to process the question or formulate your response. Ask for clarification.
3. Gauge the other person’s mood and intention, and adjust your tone accordingly.
If he or she is calm, answer calmly. If he or she is agitated, answer with a deliberate delivery. What you initially perceive as a challenge or criticism may merely be curiosity.
4. Be observant, open minded, and flexible.
Seek to better understand and interpret the context.
5. Be empathic and tolerant of cultural differences.
Remember that there is no one right opinion. Each culture and each person has determined mindsets that work for them and those ways of thinking are equally as valuable and useful as your ways.
6. Maintain a healthy sense of humor.
Learn to laugh at your mistakes and misunderstandings, or limited local language skills. Humor isn’t just about language, and you can use it to defer tense interactions.
7. Explain that a diverse range of opinions exist.
“The United States is very big and not everyone agrees on this topic. Some people feel strongly, while others feel...”
8. Practice! The more you do it, the easier it’s going to get.
By participating in different types of cross-cultural interactions, you’ll become more comfortable navigating through them.
Light painting of a question mark.

By processing your own experiences, reviewing the homework you’ve done, and starting to use the tips outlined in this section, you’ll be better equipped to confidently and competently answer any difficult questions you may encounter.

About this Resource

Representing the United States—and Americans—while living and working abroad is an honor and privilege. At the same time, it can be overwhelming and intimidating to answer questions on behalf of a nation and its people, especially considering the diversity of the American experience. Every American living or working abroad needs the skills and confidence to answer difficult questions politely and substantively, while at the same time respecting the many cultural realities of all interpersonal encounters.

This interactive resource, So You’re an American? A Guide to Answering Difficult Questions Abroad, is designed to build skills and confidence in responding to difficult questions about culture and nationality. Specifically, this resource focuses on handling everyday inquiries from curious folks around the globe. Have you ever jumped in a taxi and been confronted with “Why do Americans love their guns so much?” or some such question mired in history, culture, and values? Or, have you been at a local market trying to purchase a gift and been surprised that what should have been a 10 minute encounter has turned into a 45 minute ritual of tea, presentation of goods, and detailed explanations of the craftsman’s process?

So You’re an American? A Guide to Answering Difficult Questions Abroad is an online resource created by the Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute for all Americans living and working abroad who are eager to prepare for the many informal and unofficial questions they will receive while overseas. Throughout this resource, you will explore cross-cultural communication techniques as well as various aspects of culture through self-paced activities, videos, and simulations. Participants will develop confidence in their ability to navigate difficult questions and conversations, including knowing how to disengage appropriately. This resource limits its scope to non-foreign policy questions, as those demand answers from official sources.