A recent conversation with the lovely Alec MacMillen (Arabic speaker and traveler on his way to Jordan on a Fulbright at the end of this month) reminded me of this topic…

And How is Your Family? Making Connections Abroad

In the first unit of my Tibetan language class, we learned words for family members and how to ask about them. “Do you have any brothers or sisters? Where are your children? What do they do?” Beyond “how are you?” these were the first questions I learned how to ask the Tibetan residents of my neighborhood in Boudha, Kathmandu, Nepal.
My friend, a novice monk. We could converse only at a very basic level, but he knew that I had one brother who lived in Canada.
When I traveled to Senegal on a High School summer exchange program, I learned much the same phrases in Wolof. “Where is your family?” “They are here,” was a classic exchange between strangers or friends. What I didn’t quite understand at age 16, I began to see more clearly while studying in Nepal: In almost any corner of the globe, family is literally the foundation of every relationship. If you want to form a friendship, begin by asking about someone’s parents, sisters, brothers, children. If you wish to grow closer to your host family, ask about children, cousins or siblings abroad.
In most beginning language courses, vocabulary for family members and questions about family almost always show up in the very first unit. In 6th grade French, I remember finding this awkward and a little bit silly. Many college language students feel much the same way.
In the U.S., these are not the first questions we are taught to ask. At least, these were not the questions I was taught to ask. For many Americans I know, inquiring about family members is intimate, almost invasive for acquaintances or strangers. Here, if you want to form a friendship, begin by talking about shared interests, food, school… Family comes later.
In that Tibetan language class, my teachers stressed the importance of asking about family first, before anything else. This was crucial to respectfully initiating conversations and friendships; omitting to ask about family could be perceived as inconsiderate or even offensive.
Istanbul, where I probably sat down to drink tea in every candy shop over the course of my week-long visit.
Once learned, this was a lesson I would carry with me. In Turkey, I made friends with every shopkeeper I met, exclusively by asking about family. In Italy, I remembered to ask new friends the same. Regardless of country or age, new acquaintances responded with warmth and enthusiasm to my queries. Do you have children? Where are they? What do they do? Do you have any brothers or sisters? What do they do? Where are they? Are you married? Where is your husband? Your wife? What are their names? Detailed, personal questions repeatedly forged an immediate intimacy and connection that flippant conversations about the weather or school could never produce.
I became more comfortable in the asking as I saw how people opened to my questions. When I returned home and began conducting interviews for my senior thesis work, I employed the same technique, with surprisingly similar results.
There exists in the U.S. an individualism that de-emphasizes the role of family. We are individuals. We are not where or who we come from. As I traveled and made friends, however, I found that most people do not agree. Questions about family are so crucial to forming relationships because family is crucial to forming individuals. No matter how much we pretend, we do not exist independently of it.
While hitchhiking, I bonded quickly with strangers by asking about siblings, children, parents, etc.
At least, that is the belief that drove my experience of connecting with strangers. Whether or not I believed it didn’t even matter so much; my new friends did.

So, if you are traveling and you want to make friends, after you ask “how are you?” remember to go on with, “And how is your family?” See what happens.