When I used to participate in a course that trained people in interpersonal skills, the first unit was always “Entering a Group for the First Time.” It was about how we all have similar feelings when we are entering an unfamiliar group of people – examples might include a sporting team, new workplace, church, a party where you might only know one person, a classroom etc. Usually we are very self conscious, worried about our appearance, how people will see us, what they will think about us, will we make friends, will we be accepted..the list goes on.
However, what we forget is EVERYONE is feeling this.
It’s actually quite a liberating thought when you think about it. At least for me, it helps me to relax and I feel more comfortable to introduce myself to people, because I know that will help overcome the awkwardness faster!
Last week I trained some senior students at a residential college for a university about cross-cultural communication and awareness. One of my favourite activities is to have them interact whilst putting on extreme versions of stereotypical cultural traits.
It highlights how you could feel quite uncomfortable if someone is acting in a way that you are unused to. For example, if they are standing closer to you than you prefer, because they have a different idea of personal space. Or if they are speaking very loudly. Or if they are always looking you in the eye, or avoiding eye contact at all costs.
This puts an added layer of complexitiy into entering a group for the frst time. These students were about to welcome many “freshers” into the college for the year ahead, who would be coming from a diverse range of countries and cultures. How do they handle that?
Well, as I said, it can be quite freeing to have a broader awareness of what might be going on for people. You can think beyond your feelings which may be paralysing you from speaking to people, and reach out in action for the purpose of helping establish a relationship. You might experience behaviours that are unusual for you, but if you have an attitude of curiosity, it helps to overcome the instinct to withdraw into your own comfortable box.
And why should you step outside of your box? Because you might just build some collaborative bridges that help you discover new exciting things! Just this week I was speaking with a new employee from Azerbaijan – I got to learn about a new country that I never would have otherwise.
It just takes a bit of intention, willing to listen and to learn, and even a college with 20-30 different cultures can create a homely community for these overseas students and make their transition into a new country a bit easier.
So, next time you’re entering a group for the first time, try to broaden your awareness and make the first move – you’ll be amazed at how people appreciate it and open up to you!