talking to strangers waaaahaa
August 24, 2012 10:13 AM   Subscribe

Studying abroad for a semester. I'm rather shy, so any advice for getting out of my shell and making the most of my time in a foreign country?

I'm an American studying in Sweden for a semester as an exchange student. I'm 21 and female, if that helps. I consider myself relatively shy, though I open up a lot more if I'm talking with one or two people.

I hate to admit that I'm still uncomfortable in Sweden after a couple weeks of being here. The food's weird, the dominant language is different, most everyone looks different from me (my family's Chinese) and I have no friends here - more or less a small group of acquaintances who are in the same boat as me. So far I've gone out to bars, dinners, etc. with larger groups though I admit I don't enjoy them. Yet I still go anyway in hopes of meeting new people.

Anyway, the school semester will begin soon and I realize there's lots of outlets to meet people - clubs, classes, floormates, and so on. But I'm one of those introverts who need a lot of alone time yet goes nuts if there's no one to talk to for a couple hours. Skyping with my friends back home has been nice though I haven't been doing it often and I can't help but let my anxiety about being in a new place still unestablished get to me.

Some days are fine - I love exploring the outdoors on my own. A day in a nearby city with one other classmate with whom I feel comfortable talking to, that was interesting. Other days are ehhh - I hate seeming like loser staying in at night and just reading a book. To be honest, I'm not completely sure what I enjoy doing the most beyond watching films and swimming, so this trip is of course supposed to be one of self-discovery. I'm going WWOOFing (ie. volunteering at a Swedish farm) with a classmate for a week tomorrow, so that'll be exciting since I've been thinking about it for a year and did all the planning. Hopefully I'll travel alone to another city for a bit on some weekend I'm free - I think that would boost my self-confidence.

I realize, of course, that it might take a while to find a group of friends. I'd like some advice about how to open up a little without losing what's essential about me. About approaching random people without feeling awkward (hell, I hate asking questions). About adjusting to a new country. About maintaining a sense of balance in establishing a new (though temporary) life.

posted by myntu to Human Relations (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Congrats on studying abroad! There's a lot to adjust to, but it can be an amazing experience.

It sounds like you've gotten a good start with going out and volunteering. Perhaps you can do more of that when school starts, especially for activities where you're doing some work with others, but don't necessarily have to talk a lot.

One of the things that caused me some initial anxiety when studying abroad was not knowing where things were. Being able to explore, find out where everything (classes, grocery stores, pharmacies, public transport, etc.) was very helpful. During free time, I'd often pick one thing or event to try out per day and check it out. I'd often invite others in an "hey, I heard about this interesting thing and I'm going to try it, anybody want to come with me?" You might want to try something similar with your floormates.

Feel free to MeMail me if you'd like to talk!
posted by wiskunde at 10:44 AM on August 24, 2012

I'm one of those introverts who need a lot of alone time

The way I grapple with this is to never make decisions based on the fact that I know I will eventually get socially drained. Instead, when I know I have energy to get out and socialize, I use it, and then when I get tired, go home or otherwise recharge. I never say, "gosh, if I go out and do this thing, it will just drain me. I'll go skype someone instead."

In fact, skyping because you need to talk to someone might be sort of a problem: you get your social "fix" and tire yourself out just enough that you won't want to go out and spend time at campus events or going out with friends.

So concentrate on doing something you know you should do now and don't talk yourself out of it by telling yourself, "I am just going to need alone time."
posted by deanc at 10:45 AM on August 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think you should give yourself a break! Not adjusting to a new country after just a couple of weeks is totally normal. It takes a while to get used to all of those things that are different. For me, at least, it probably takes two weeks to settle into a new city in my own country, never mind overseas. Give it some time.

That said, I bet the school semester starting will make a big difference quickly. It sounds like so far you've mostly met fellow exchange students? Once school starts and you meet more locals too, you may things get easier. In my experience living abroad, locals tend to be very keen to be friendly and get to know visitors! You might not have to do the "work" of approaching people in your classes or your residence; you're the interesting foreigner, so they will come to you. And there are lots of easy go-to conversations there--what's most different, what do you like about Sweden, why did you decide to come and study here, etc. Just being open to those questions, and asking your own questions in return can go a long way. Instead of "argh, I have to ask this stranger a question" maybe think of it as "great, this stranger can solve random Swedish cultural mysteries for me!"

Good luck with settling in! Seriously, not being comfortable in a new country a few weeks into your time there is just fine. Don't feel bad about admitting that at all! It will come.
posted by snorkmaiden at 10:55 AM on August 24, 2012

What you are going through is known as culture shock. Everything seems different, all at once, and the parts of the brain that were used to operating on auto-pilot are all shook up at the same time. It can be hugely daunting, frightening, confusing, depressing, depending on the moment.

It will pass. The trick that worked for me was to let go. Accept that this isn't home and decide to enjoy that fact. Also, keep busy to prevent the loneliness birds from hatching eggs in your gut.

Shyness is a fear. I think pretty much all fears come down to the fear of some type of pain. For shyness, that pain is rejection, humiliation, or other emotional pain. The good news is that you can learn that the pain is non-fatal. Practice a little bit each day doing something you're afraid of and note that you live through it.

Once I got over the culture shock, I loved my years in Sweden, love the people, love the language. Norwegians*, not so much (I kid!).

I lived in Halmstad, Göteborg, Lidköping, among other places.

Swedes, generally, are socially reserved, meaning it isn't easy to make friends with them. They tend to be very polite, though, and easy to make acquaintances. Gain their trust and you will find no better, more generous, friends.

At least, that was my experience.

You have the #1 opportunity to get really good at the language, which is a lovely tongue and fun to speak once it starts to flow. The Swedes will want to speak English with you so you can "trade" language practice as a way to build connections.

MeMail me if you want to talk.

*Swedes & Norwegians tell the same jokes using the other as the butt. Example: how do you save a drowning Norwegian? I don't know. Good!
posted by trinity8-director at 11:21 AM on August 24, 2012

I did a semester in Sweden last year, my last year of college (Lund, in case that's where you are) so MeMail me if you have very specific questions.

Here would be my tips:
1. Venture outside the exchange-student bubble. This will be easier once classes/clubs start in full swing. Once you have one really good Swedish friend they'll help you out a LOT, and will be a good person to bitch to about culture shock. Also, they may have their own friend group.

(This was probably the biggest challenge for most ppl I knew. Almost no exchange students made any friends who weren't also exchange students, which is kind of sad in my opinion, both for the visiting students and for the locals who are missing a cool opportunity for int'l friendship).

2. Learn some Swedish. (This will help with point 1, and set you apart from most other exchange students). I'm pretty bad still after 5 months, but around month 3 or so you will go from being totally clueless to at least having a grasp of what is going on around you, and that makes a HUGE difference on making it feel like home.

3. Talk to random people. Swedes are introverted themselves generally, so you are going to have to make the first move (but that doesn't mean they don't want to talk to you!) Probably this will be mildly to medium uncomfortable, but that is part of studying abroad and will be worth it in the end, I promise. Almost every one of my Swedish friends I made by just saying hello to someone completely out of the blue at a party / event.

4. Go to parties/clubs/large social gatherings, even do it alone occasionally (no one will know you're alone, btw). This helps with 3. Practice your Swedish on randos here, even if all you learn to say is, "Hej!! Jag heter ____. Läget?" (Hey, my name is ___, sup?)
posted by mokudekiru at 12:29 PM on August 24, 2012

My son was an AFS student in Hungary, in a small town. He made a conscious effort to not call home, not email, (Skype didn't exist then) and he was the only exchange student in his little town. He had to sink or swim, which is not for everyone, I know, but it worked for him.
If this year is going to be meaningful for you, you need to start with your language skills, cut down on the time spent online with old pals and get into your new situation. Go to everything, even if you're missing half the conversations and don't feel completely at ease. Can you get a private language tutor? That made a huge difference for my son, esp as he had to learn Hungarian. Even if your program gives you language lessons, I'd still see if you can find someone who'll really help you with conversation, idioms, and so on.
And think about what you have to offer--can you cook a meal for a small group? Can you go to a Chinese restaurant with a Swedish friend who might not know much about that food? Hang in there--you'll find it gets easier as you go on.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:34 PM on August 24, 2012

I'd find some places I wanted to go and go there by myself, and set myself some errands and go run them.

I'd also try to find some language partners. When I did a brief study abroad thing, I put a sign up looking for conversation partners. If you want this to help you with language, you need to be pretty organized about it (make sure your levels work with each other, use the Pomodoro timing rule, or something). I wasn't, and it didn't help my language skills at all. BUT ... I had fun, and it was literally the only time I got to go into a personal home the whole time I was there. Decide if you want to focus on language study or if you're OK just hanging out, and try to find people.

As a language teacher, I sometimes tell people to pretend they're extroverts or pretend they're outgoing. It will help you learn faster. It sounds like you're mostly an introvert (and so am I, though like most normal introverts, it's not like I don't need other people). Pretending you're not will not change anything essential about you. It's not about forcing you to do things you hate, but just about making yourself more open to new experiences. A student/friend of mine came here to learn English and did this (of his own volition, not on my suggestion). After he'd learned a little English, when he was out bicycling, he'd say "Nice day!" to someone if they were both stopped at the same time. It's not something he'd do in his own country.

You can see if there are any interesting entries on for your city -- it does have some international events. :)

Watch out for toxic international student culture. At my school overseas many students made fun of the students who wanted to hang out with locals and speak the local language instead of sticking to English and going to bars with each other. I could have some fun analyzing this attitude, but if you've got those people at your school, please ignore them.

Things will be weird and they'll get better and then they'll get worse and then they'll even out ... if they follow the usual pattern. Hang in there!
posted by wintersweet at 2:50 PM on August 24, 2012

When my wife worked in Stockholm and Nynäshamn, she took advantage of the free Svenskundervisning för invandrare Swedish language courses. It was a good way to meet people outside of work, and helped her learn Swedish as well.

Also, pretty much any Swede is your bestest friend if you hang around the tunnelbana (subway) late at night. Of course, they'll all be plastered/eight sheets to the wind/drunk as a skunk. Reserved Swedes liven right up with a copious application of alcohol.
posted by blob at 6:06 PM on August 24, 2012

Find a local language exchange if there is one locally. This site may be helpful.

Also, checkout

Great way to meet locals.

Good luck. I'm off to my local language exchange now.
posted by Che boludo! at 4:00 PM on September 20, 2012

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