- Research social norms and cultural points before arriving in your new home to learn a bit about the people there. Be careful to avoid stereotypes!
- If your new roommate is open to it, once you arrive try to bond over cooking a meal together or going to see a movie.
- Take advantage of learning opportunities with your new roommate like participating in a language exchange, attending local festivals, and meeting their friends and family.
- Communication is key: be open and honest while maintaining respect for cultural boundaries.
When moving to a new country, one of your first priorities will be finding a place to live. Unfortunately, it isn’t as simple as scanning the classifieds, picking out an apartment, and moving in. There are many cultural norms that you will have to navigate, which can sometimes be amplified when you are living in tight quarters.
Despite these challenges, many people choose to live with roommates while abroad. Having a local roommate provides an immediate connection to a group of friends, the possibility of attending family events, and the opportunity to learn more about the local culture, etiquette, restaurants, clubs, etc. If you're lucky, you may even find you gained access to a car, invaluable opportunities to explore your new digs from a local’s perspective, and the ability to go places and do things that tourists may never have the chance to.
In order to make this a successful experience, check out our tips for living (and getting along) with a foreign roommate abroad!
Break the ice
Living with new people can be awkward, even if you’re from the same country. Here are some suggestions on ways to get to know each other:
- Cook a traditional meal together.
- Watch a popular TV show from your host country together.
- Go out to a movie. This is one of the easier options, especially if you’re shy. You’ll be doing something together, but with very little conversation.
- Grab some drinks at their favorite bar.
- Host a housewarming party at your apartment.
- Decorate the new space together.
- Have a cup of tea or coffee at home and share photos of your lives.
- Try out a new restaurant.
No matter what, remember to do your best to be patient. You’re also "the foreigner", so recognize there may be a steep learning curve from the other end, too. There are always hacks to make things easier if you're patient enough to navigate them. For example, if language barriers make getting to know each other or communicating expectations difficult, try gestures or using a translation app.
At the end of the day, you are there to learn and are expected to conform to the rules of the local society. However, your roommate is your most invaluable source of information on how to not only survive, but thrive in your new home, so take advantage where necessary.
Pull your weight
No matter what, you should expect to contribute financially to shared items such as dish soap, toilet paper, milk, eggs, and other common household products upon moving in. Also, be prepared to purchase furniture, dishes, or appliances depending on how furnished the living space is.
Outside of financial contributions, make sure to discuss the distribution of chores and/or a cleaning rota with your new roommate or roommates. Disputes over cleanliness are unfortunately all too common in living situations, especially when you're in a different country that may have standards or expectations unlike those at home. It might feel uncomfortable laying this out upfront but in the end, you'll be so glad you did.
Whether you chose your roommate via craigslist, or are placed in a foreign dorm or homestay, the most important rule to remember is: be respectful. The key things to consider when living with another person are the things that cross all cultures: privacy, comfort, and responsibility.
In other words, respect personal boundaries (especially if cohabitating with the opposite sex) and be mindful of each other’s right to quiet enjoyment of your place. Agree on whether parties or gatherings are allowed in the house and when and follow those rules. Generally, keeping open and respectful communication can resolve nearly any conflict.
Take advantage of learning opportunities
Being interested in someone else's language and culture can go a long way in forging a friendship and creating a happy home environment. See if your roommate is interested in doing a language exchange or setting up a language schedule in the house where you speak certain languages for certain parts of the week.
For roommates who share a common language, cultural exchanges are just as valuable. Learn about their country's most important traditions and festivals and ask them to involve you whenever possible. Music, movies, and dance are other great ways to learn about cultural heritage and can be a fun activity to get involved in together.
Cultural norms and intercultural communication will be, hands down, the most challenging things about living with a foreign roommate abroad. It's important to remember that what's normal or even polite in your home country's culture may not be the same in your roommate's. Navigating these nuances will take time (and see above: patience!) and doing a bit of research beforehand can help.
The world is wonderfully diverse and filled with an abundance of unique cultural norms and communication styles. By no means an exhaustive list, here are a few cultural nuances from popular study abroad destinations to illustrate the interesting cultural points you'll encounter living with a foreign roommate abroad.
Spain is a land of directness both in culture and language. When compared to English and English-speaking cultures, communication and social norms can seem abrupt and even rude at times. Spaniards are likely to give a command like "give me that" rather than asking, "could you give me that?" This isn't meant to be rude but can easily be misinterpreted. Over time though, you will learn to appreciate a roommate who doesn't dance around a subject but rather gets straight to the point.
The idea of "face" (miànzi) in Chinese culture is an integral part of social interaction. Anything you do or say that could be perceived as disrespectful to others will cause you to "lose face". On the other hand, giving gifts and showing respect will cause you to "give face". In China, honor and respect are paramount and social standing and family structures are highly valued. Unlike in Western cultures where saving face is meant to shield the individual from embarrassment, in Chinese culture, it extends outside of the individual to their families and friends.
You both speak English -- what could go wrong?! Culturally, the Irish are polite and often conflict averse. You'll find that your Irish roommate may avoid speaking to you directly about something you do that bothers them in an attempt to avoid confrontation. Be attentive to their behavior to understand when "it's grand" doesn't really mean that things are going well.
Germans have a reputation for being all business but under that initial impression of seriousness, you'll find a very welcoming and generally fun-loving person. Germans value their privacy so don't come on too strong in an attempt to win them over. They also tend to prefer orderly environments so setting up a chore chart or grocery list for shared household items will go a long way in ensuring harmony in your household.
The adjustment period is worth it
Even though the first few days or weeks may involve a small adjustment period, it will all be worth it in the end. The major upside about living with a foreign roommate is that you both have a world of knowledge and experiences to share with each other; you may teach your roommate a new language while he or she shows you the ropes in your new country. They will be the best resource to tell you where to go, and where not to go, along with what to do and what not to do. Just remember to keep an open mind -- you may find you make a new lifelong friend!
Note: If figuring out the logistics of a big move (and organizing your own roommate search!) sounds a tad overwhelming for your trip abroad, consider passing on those responsibilities to a top-notch program provider or organization. In this way, you can just worry about having fun and enjoying your time abroad instead of worrying about the roof over your head. Many study abroad, volunteer abroad, and gap year programs will provide the support that you seek!