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Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at two groups run by the Mosaic Multicultural Connections in Newcastle here in Australia.
And what a pleasure it was. I do so enjoy meeting wonderful women immigrants from all over the world. Having small groups with the opportunity to uplift, encourage and hopefully inspire such women is a delight.
One of the things I’ve discovered that I love is when I receive a question, or someone shares an experience or attitude or reaction, that I haven’t heard before. In the moment, I might not know how to answer; I may not have an immediate idea that proves helpful and uplifting.
But in the minutes that follow, a thought will come to me, and as I allow it to develop, it can become a really cool conversation that leads to a solution that makes everyone smile.
You can tell when you’ve hit on something valuable because everyone’s energy lifts and there’s suddenly a general consensus that YES – that feels great, I’ll use that, that has given me a path!
Events and conversations like this give me a deeper understanding of the varying immigrant experiences and reactions, which allows me to create deeper, more meaningful, rounded, valuable experiences in my talks, workshops and books (yes, I'm brimming with ideas and writing daily for my next book).
Last week, one topic that arose was how to respond when you’re constantly asked about your background.
A lovely Russian lady said seven different people at the one gathering had asked her where she’s from and how long she’s been in Australia! It can get pretty tiresome, right?
Then one question can lead to another and then another, and after a while it can feel more like an interrogation than a conversation.
And surprise, surprise, you actually enjoy other topics of conversation too, right? Even if you’re not that confident in English yet.
Sooooo, here’s my idea to help you re-gain control and create a two-way conversation.
Pre-pave your answer in advance.
The trick is to decide in advance how you will respond to questions about your heritage. Design a sentence that you practice in your mind, so that when the occasion arises, you’ll know exactly what to say, and you’ll be ready to go!
There are three aspects that you’ll likely want to include in your response:
- being polite and good company
- sharing only as much as you’re comfortable with
- guiding the conversation towards other subjects, and transforming it into a 2-way conversation rather than remaining the object of endless personal questions.
Here's an example that everyone in the group really liked last week and decided that they would use when asked where they’re from:
“It’s nice of you to ask about my heritage. I’m (nationality), I came to (current country) …………. years ago. I’ve seen some great places here and I’d love to see more. Do you have a favourite (town, café, camping spot, beach, family holiday spot, restaurant, cinema – you choose something that interests you) that you like to visit and would recommend?
See what we’re doing here?
- We’re acting warm and appreciative
- We’re giving just enough personal information to satisfy the questioner and not overstepping our personal comfort zone
- We’re purposefully guiding the conversation onto topics that both parties can participate in.
- If you choose a topic that you’re truly interested in, you just may leave with some good tips!
- And who knows, maybe even the beginnings of a genuine friendship (if you like making new friends).
At the very least, you’ve been a confident conversationalist.
Here are a couple of other similar ideas:
“Thank you for being interested in my background. I’m from ………………… and I’ve been in (your adopted country) for ……………… years. I really like (choose an aspect of the country or culture that you genuinely like). What’s one of your favourite aspects of being Australian (or American or British or whatever identity your adopted country represents)?
Think of topics that are relevant to the conversation AND relevant to your interests:
family holiday spots
"I really enjoy discovering all the local coffee spots here. Do you have a favourite café that you could recommend?"
"I recently went to …………………….. on a holiday with my family. We liked ……………………. about it. Do you have a holiday spot that you enjoy and would recommend?"
Here are a few sentences you might like to use when asked about your accent:
“Yes, lots of people are curious about my accent; it’s so fun! I speak ……………………. Do you speak another language?”
“It’s been fun and also challenging to get used to speaking English. Thank you for being patient if I take a while to find my words. Do you speak another language?”
"I’m gradually improving my English. I’m proud of myself; it's a big deal learning how to express yourself in a whole new way. Thank you for your patience as I sometimes search my mind for words. Do you speak another language?"
These sorts of answers show confidence (by saying that it’s fun or mentioning the challenge or thanking them in advance for their patience or asking them for assistance to find the correct word), and they all reflect your bravery and show you to be a woman who is capable of taking on big challenges and making huge life choices.
Asking them if they speak another language themselves has a cheeky double purpose: 1. it extends the conversation and puts them in the spotlight for a moment, and 2. it gently shows how incredibly cool you are to speak more than one language!
All in all, you really are a very capable, adaptable, fascinating woman. And now you're also a chic and savvy conversationalist in a new language.
What a star!!