Communication in intercultural dating & relationships

More and more people are living, working and studying abroad. One of the byproducts of this trend is that there are more and more intercultural relationships that are developing into intercultural marriages; along the way is a long process of dating that has even more ups and downs than the average dating process.

Anyone who’s dated someone with a different culture from their own (even if that’s a racial or ethnic culture from somewhere else inside the U.S.) will tell you that dating someone who comes from a culture significantly different from your own can be both extremely exciting as well as extremely frustrating. Of course, dating always has its ups and downs, and various problems arise along the way, but add cultural differences to the natural course of dating, and you have yourself a recipe for roller-coaster dating.

TIP: Running out of conversation? Here are 2000 questions to ask your partner.

Communication Pitfalls

Many intercultural relationships involve two people from different countries, which also often means that they speak two different languages. In some intercultural relationships, one partner speaks their second language (English) while the other partner speaks English as their first language. In this case, the one for whom English is a second language has to put significantly more effort and time into communicating with their partner. Not only does this cause some strain, it is also the source of numerous misunderstandings every day. All the little signs and signals, that are so natural to native speakers of a language, are missed, or misinterpreted, by someone who learned English only in high school.

In other relationships, for example when a Spanish-speaking American dates a German-speaking Austrian, both partners are speaking a foreign language (English) when they talk to one another. While this (hypothetically) puts equal strain on both parties, it often happens that the communication lacks some depth. Most often, both partners speaking English works well for the first few weeks or months of dating, but as a relationship becomes more serious, one or the other partner may begin to feel that they cannot fully express themselves to their partner.

Both of these situations produce significant communication problems in intercultural relationships. Communication is absolutely vital to any relationship being sustained and developing further and more deeply. If both partners are keen on working on their communication, and they are both willing to put a lot of extra effort into communicating in their intercultural relationship, the relationship has a good chance of blossoming. On the other hand, if one or both partners are unwilling or unable to spend substantial time and effort on communicating with each other, the relationship will, most likely, eventually fail.

Importance of Communication

Of course, the actual information that partners share with each other is important, but there is also the level of communication that makes people feel connected with one another. Especially for female partners, the need to be in a relationship with someone who is ‘in tune’ to you is high. Dating and relationships are about forging connections with another person, and as human beings, talking is one of the biggest ways that we can connect with one another. This is why communication of a high quality is so important in a relationship, especially as it develops from casual dating into a more serious relationship.

Quality of Communication

The hints I provide below are taken from first-person experience. Born and raised in America, I live in Amsterdam with my Dutch-speaking fiance. Whether I speak in broken Dutch, or he speaks in broken English, one of us has to speak a non-native language in order to communicate with the other. The tips below are hard-learned lessons that can hopefully help others in intercultural relationships to avoid a few of the pitfalls that we’ve fallen into in our multilingual household.

Listen carefully, not critically

When your partner is speaking a non-native language, their sentences will take longer to come together and longer to come out. Be patient, listen carefully, and by all means, don’t cringe at every grammar or pronunciation error.

Pause before finishing another’s sentence: sentences taking longer to come together sometimes results in one partner trying to finish the other’s sentences. While this is sometimes helpful and sometimes necessary, don’t let it become a habit, and when you Do do it, make sure that the person has had a chance to find the words at their own pace—don’t jump in while (s)he is still thinking.

Don’t ever laugh at errors

While it’s sometimes difficult not to laugh (for example when a certain place in Florida is called ‘Lord Fauderdale’ or when your partner suggests going to a ‘woody’ area instead of a ‘wooded’ area), many people are very sensitive when speaking a second language. Support your partner’s efforts by keeping that laughter internal.

Correct constructively

In the above tip, it says not to laugh, but there are many instances when correcting (politely and in a supporting way) is not only constructive, but can help build your relationship. Finding a way to approach the subject in a neutral way (instead of bursting into hysterical laughter in the middle of their sentence) gives you both a good opportunity to connect with one another, and a good opportunity to improve each other’s language skills, to save you from making the same mistake in the future, in front of a less supportive audience.

Take turns in struggling

If you’ve just begun dating someone, you might not each speak the other’s language, but as your relationship develops, many couples become fluent in each other’s languages. When this is the case, it’s always a good idea to reduce the linguistic burden by swapping languages so that sometimes, one partner is struggling in their second language and other times, the other partner is struggling in their second language. Not only is this fair, it gives both partners the experience of being the one speaking the second language. This experience of being the struggler is how we learn how to be supportive when it’s our partner doing the struggling.

Intercultural relationships can be rich and fulfilling when communication is open and highly developed. I hope my experience in an intercultural relationship helps you to develop yours!