That’s right. You heard me. As an international student, as someone who’s learning about life in the U.S and is curious, what could be more timely than to ask Americans who they want their next President to be?
But wait. I think I know what you are thinking. You are thinking, “But Marcelo, I attended some networking training for international students at my university and the trainer told me that in the U.S there are certain conversation topics that are considered taboo and these include: sex, politics, and religion.”
I hear you. You did not receive bad advice per se. It’s a little mainstream for my taste but it’s certainly not necessarily wrong. You probably also learned about the value of small talk and were given appropriate/safe questions to ask Americans when you first meet them during networking events, for example. That’s all fine but I’m not sure it will get you very far…
Perhaps as an international student, you are ready to take more chances in your conversations with Americans. And opposed to having safe and perfectly appropriate conversations with those you meet, you are now ready to have memorable conversations with those you meet. And that also means you are now ready to deal with some awkward moments as well.
Let me give you my opinion. This is just my opinion, so take it with a grain of salt and feel free to disagree. Here’s what I think: Americans are dying to talk about each one of these 3 forbidden topics. They want to discuss and express their views about topics they have been told all their lives that they should not discuss with others. While Americans expect that those they first meet with will not to ask them any questions about sex, politics, and religion, watch what happens when you bring up one of these topics.
Here’s what I have often seen happen: when appropriately given the chance to talk about the forbidden topics, in the right context, many Americans I have talked to seem to thoroughly appreciate the experience. It seems to be liberating for them to share their views – sometimes with strangers – about issues they have been told all their lives they should not discuss with others. I’m not ready to ask you to talk with Americans you first meet about sex and religion. Let’s not go there. But politics, yes, let’s go there now, today.
So this brings me to a random conversation I had recently with an 81-year old man who was trying to use a printer at a hotel where I was staying. We were both at this hotel business center. Noticing that this guy next to me was struggling to print his document, I bravely offered him some help.
“I hate when technology does not work”, he tells me.
I responded, “I think we all do. I’m good with this printer. I have used it before. I’ll try to help you.”
And that’s what I did. I managed to get his document printed. In the course of helping him, I asked this old man where he was from what had brought him to Washington DC. Without realizing it, I was enjoying chitchatting with him. He was pleasant and appeared to be intelligent.
And then, out of blue, without any warning, I asked him:
“I have a question for you. I am curious about something. Who will you vote for?”
And he looked at me and told me that he was not thrilled about either option we have but he was confidently going to vote for Trump.
“Interesting,” I said.
“How about you?” he asked me.
I said, “I am a very unenthusiastic Hillary Clinton supporter.”
He smiled. And I smiled back. We looked at each other’s eyes. And right there, at that very moment, I left we connected with each other, in a way that was genuine, in a way that made us conformable with one another, in a way that made that chance encounter at the business center a pleasant experience for us both.
The conversation continued. The old man proceeded to explain to me why he thought Trump was the better choice given the alternative. I listened attentively and made a real effort to understand his positions. And then he said:
“Are you from DC?”
I said, “No, I am from Brazil originally if you are trying to find out where I was born. I was raised in Brazil. Came to the U.S when I was about 20.”
He replied. “Brazil! Boy, you certainly have a lot going on down there these days with the recent impeachment of the president and everything else that is going on.
“Tell me about it. Sometimes our situation makes U.S politics and the current U.S presidential race look boring.”
We continued to talk about politics, one of the 3 forbidden topics. We exchanged, even more, views about politics in America and around the world. We became engaged in ways that we had not expected. And it was because I chose to ask this stranger a question about a topic I had been taught not to bring up when meeting Americans for the first time in the U.S.
Sure this one man could have felt uncomfortable with my question about whom he was going to vote for. Sure he could have said, “I don’t find it appropriate for you to ask me about my political views.” And sure it would have felt very awkward for me if that had happened. But none of that happened…
A good conversation, a conversation is that worth having, will involve a certain element of risk.
Are you having conversations that are worth having international students? Most of the international students I talk to are not.
I encourage you – international student – regardless of your command of the English language, regardless of your accent, regardless of whether or not you know much about life in the U.S, to get off the beaten bath and break some conversation and networking rules. With some common sense and a true respect for the views of the individual you’re talking to almost any conversation topics is appropriate, in the right context.
My chat with the old man continued.
“So, are you a Federal worker or something? Are you involved in politics yourself?”, asked me the old man, now sincerely curious to find out what it is that I did for a living.
I proceed to enthusiastically tell him about The International Advantage program. Why it exists, the kind of impact I am trying to have, what I felt my true mission really way.
“How interesting”, he said. “I’m somewhat familiar with the U.S immigration system.”
And then he said:
“I know someone who teaches at the Business School at the University of Rochester. Very global person. He is a professor who loves to help his students find jobs. He has talked to me before about his international students. He has a ton of them. Give me your email address and I will connect the two of you.”
Marcelo Barros is the author of The International Advantage Get Noticed Get Hired! Today Marcelo partners with university career centers to give international students an edge when job searching, sometimes by breaking some good old job searching rules.