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5 Commandments for Dating a Foreigner

by Kate Herman Sep 12, 2016

1. Communicate.

As in all relationships, communication is key. However it becomes infinitely more important in a cross-cultural relationship.

If your romantic interest’s first language isn’t English, you will struggle at least to some degree with the language barrier. Be on guard for possible miscommunications, especially as conversations grow deeper. Talking about your hobbies in Spanish is one thing but expressing your heart is a whole different ballgame.

It’s not just lack of vocabulary that can cause trouble either; sometimes a word or phrase has been learned incorrectly. When I started dating my Dutch boyfriend, he would tell me things about his family and friends such as, “My sister wants to move to Asia,” and I would reply, “Wow, good for her.” One day after such a conversation my boyfriend stated, “You’re really rude sometimes.” Which is true — but just not in this particular moment. He said he disliked how I wasn’t genuinely happy for people. It turned out that he hadn’t learned that “good for her” can mean literally, good for her(!). He’d only ever heard with a sarcastic, bitter connotation. So communicate what you mean clearly and listen for feedback indicating that the person has understood you.

2. Keep an open mind.

If you’re going to date a foreigner, you’ve got to be open to different ways of doing just about everything. You like to flirt unabashedly? They might think you’re coming on too strong. You prefer gentle criticism? They might directly voice their opinions. You think it’s polite to ask lots of personal questions? They might be offended by your intrusiveness. You expect dessert to contain sugar? They might think your cheese platter appetizer is served too early.

Be ready to let go of preconceived notions and be flexible. While some differences will be amusing; others might really irritate. Communicate clearly when such differences arise. In the U.S. it might be awkward to say, “Hey, I thought it was kind of rude when you pushed ahead of me to enter the restaurant first.” But when your Czech admirer explains that that actually is chivalrous in his country — harkening back to the days when the gentleman would enter a building first to assess its safety — then you’ll probably feel a whole lot better about the date.

3. Do what your Momma and Aretha told you to do.

Kindness and respect are universal. They can be both conveyed and understood even if you speak absolutely zero words in the same language (although contrary to the happy ending between Colin Firth and his Portuguese housekeeper in Love Actually, I’m not sure embarking on a relationship with someone that you can’t even communicate ‘hello’ with is really the best idea). A little goes a long way in these areas and are paramount in prevailing against the ups and downs of a cross-cultural liaison.

4. Sacrifice.

Anyone considering jumping headlong into a relationship with a foreigner should be aware that it’s a journey not without its sacrifices. For one thing, there’s the geographic conundrum of choosing which person’s country to live in. One person will always be making the tremendous sacrifice of living in a foreign land, speaking a foreign language, and possibly navigating a complex Visa process.

While living abroad is exciting, it can be very lonely at times too — even with bae by your side. There are some things that they just won’t be able to help you with, like homesickness or feeling excluded from conversations if you don’t know the language yet.

There’s also the added factor of trying to integrate into your partner’s circle. Just because your better half is open to experiencing your culture and possibly language, doesn’t mean all of their family and friends will be so willing. Plus, assuming both people don’t already know the other’s mother tongue, one of you at some point will be downloading Duolingo, if only to talk to your S.O.’s grandmother. That’s hours and hours of study and practice to learn a language that’s maybe completely useless outside of say Finland.

5. Laugh.

There will be awkward moments, miscommunications, and cultural faux pas throughout the relationship. This is to be expected, but it’s really helpful if you are ready to laugh at yourselves when they do.

These blunders can be one of the unique joys of dating a foreigner. It’s quite humorous being at the grocery store and your partner blurts out, “Conservatives are terrible!” offending your politics — until you realize they meant “preservatives.” Or if your date incorrectly translates “royal summer palace” as, “The royal family has an outhouse.”

Other mistakes aren’t so easily laughed off, like when your guy or gal can’t find the words to explain something concisely and you become impatient. It’s important in these moments to take a breath and have compassion. It’s not easy speaking a foreign language!

At the end of the day, life is all about mistakes. It doesn’t really matter if the mistakes are normal relationship conflicts or the result of having different nationalities; if you can laugh together, you can get through life together.

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