A few years ago, I went to the mall for a new jacket. Armed with promising coupons, I headed down the hall to Macy’s, but just outside the store a young salesperson stopped me.

“What are you doing your nills?” he asked.

What? I thought, puzzled.

He, seeing my confusion, took my hand and turned it over. “You need the magic block.”

I had no idea what he was getting at until he took out a white cube and filed my fingernails. Now I was stuck. I didn’t care about my cuticles or bumpy nails. All I wanted was a jacket. But what could I do when he jabbered on about how he’s from Pakistan, and on an amazing adventure as a sales intern in the US?

I bought two magic blocks, sighing as I walked away.

Whether it’s a sales intern at the mall, a tourist, or the Mormon missionaries, we’ve all faced the awkward tension between respecting those who have come a long distance and being honest with them. As I’ve gained more experiences, both as a local and as a foreigner, I’ve discovered some helpful tactics for dealing with the newcomers in your neighborhood.

  • If you are talking to someone who is trying to speak your native language, cut them some slack! Speak clearly and slowly. Maybe even compliment them on their speech.
  • Always remember that the person you’re talking to is probably an intelligent adult, even if they say something unusual or don’t understand every word you say. Don’t talk down to them, like you would to a three-year-old.
  • Whatever you do, don’t make assumptions about them based on where they were born. Your new coworker might be Mexican, but that doesn’t mean he’s an illegal immigrant.

If you need to say no, things can get dicey because of cultural differences, but that doesn’t mean you need to cave in to the pressure of being too polite to a foreigner. These last tips have really helped me to avoid confusion and conflict.

  • Smiling is a kind of language. You can tell your Asian foreign exchange students that flushing toilet paper in a public restroom is preferable to throwing it on the floor, but say it directly and with a smile. This way, hopefully, they’ll understand you are trying to help, even though you aren’t comfortable with their behavior.
  • Appreciate the diversity. Whether or not you agree with those traveling to your hometown, they can have a positive impact in the community. Treat them respectfully.
  • Be truthful. If you are interested in the “magic block” for your fingernails, tell the Pakistani salesperson that you want one. If you are not interested, say so, and leave it at that.

– Elizabeth Smith


(Photo by Jessica)