watercolor boy with the balloon

What's Wrong with The Locals?

People are strange when you’re a stranger. Faces look ugly when you’re alone.

“They will smile at you, but they aren’t sincere”

“Locals are so unfriendly”
“It’s hard to make friends here”
Immigrants say this nearly in every country.
The feelings of isolation and being a stranger can make us feel like a kid no one wants to play with on the playground. In a natural response to rejection, we push back, creating a vicious circle where we start to believe the statement, 'I can't make local friends.'
Why does it happen to immigrants across all time zones?

On how to read the air

Being a newbie is tough everywhere. For immigrants, it’s literally a minefield. There are so many ways to make a mistake, especially when you don’t speak the local language and you’re not that familiar with cultural nuances.
When my partner Pav went to study in Indonesia, he was surprised by how many local girls asked him if he had a girlfriend. At first, he was (probably) flattered by all the attention. Later, he realized that this type of question is as common in Indonesia as asking a new person their name or where they come from.
Any other person, after being asked if they have someone, might think: 'They're checking me out; I should do something.' Oops. Wrong. Another mine!
There are lots of nuances like this one.
As a newbie, you can learn them all only by adopting a researcher's mindset.
Observe the locals, ask questions (even the ones that may sound stupid), and learn to read the air.

Ba no kuuki wo yomu (reading the air - in Japanese) means understanding the unspoken feelings and social dynamics by listening, empathizing and being patient.
The next time you observe odd behavior from locals, take a moment to reflect.
There's a high chance that people around you don’t want to offend you; it’s just that their social norms may contradict with the norms of the country you were raised in.
Imagine an international coffee shop where a Chinese man yells his order to the barista right next to a Norwegian man’s ear. Most probably, the Norwegian will be annoyed, and the Chinese man might not even realize what he did wrong. In China, people scream to be heard. That’s what one does in a country with a population of 1.4 billion people.

We are different by the definition!

The cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand proved this point while researching how people around the globe perceive time differently.
In Singapore and Germany (tight cultures), being on time for meetings is expected, while in Latin American countries (loose cultures), locals tend to be more flexible with time (according to Michele Gelfand).
Michele Gelfand's team even measured the alignment of city street clocks across tight and loose cultures and observed surprising patterns.
In ‘tight’ cultures, the city's street clocks show synchrony down to the millisecond. Conversely, in 'loose' cultures, street clocks are less synchronized. This can explain why Johan and Carlos might not be able to grab a beer together tonight.
These differences don’t divide global society into the 'good ones' and the 'bad ones' who are never on time. Every culture has some unique advantages.
Cultures characterized as 'tight' tend to exhibit less crime, greater social order, and enhanced self-control, while people in ‘loose’ cultures are more open to change, new people, and ideas.
To build better relationships with locals, it's essential to be aware of their culture and focus on the positive aspects it brings, rather than dwelling on things you might not like.
On a separate note: Sending birthday wishes and bringing a small gift when invited to someone's house are social norms in Ukraine, and they may not be applicable in all countries. It took me a few years to understand this, but once I did, life abroad became much easier. Now, I don’t expect the locals to follow the same customs as my compatriots.
I'm actually relieved that with Poles, it's okay if I forget to send birthday wishes; I know we're still friends. However, with Ukrainians, it's such a big deal that it hurts :)

Why put in so much effort for this?

When you feel rejected in a new country and push people away, you only end up hurting yourself.
Repeatedly telling yourself that all locals are unfriendly only hinders your socialization. While borders do shape people's mentalities, an entire nation can't be 'shallow, cold, and racist'. People make the country, so there must be good things about them if we choose to live there.
If you're surrounded by unfriendly people, strive to be the kind of local you'd like to meet.
You live in the city, pay your taxes, have your favorite places to hang out - this makes you a local to a certain extent. Be the first to greet your neighbors, help tourists find their bus stop, and suggest walking a colleague's dog. Acts of kindness, generosity, and cooperation spread easily. The University of California published a paper in 2010, proving how contagious kindness is and how only few individuals can make a difference in the community.
At the moment I live in Vienna, Austria, in a tight culture (according to Michele Gelfand). “Fun” fact: Vienna has been ranked the world's least friendly city.

When I moved here, my expectations were quite low.
But random acts of kindness I witnessed in Vienna helped me create a completely different perception of the locals. Our elderly Austrian neighbor, who lives one floor above us, once asked for help fixing her coffee machine. The very next day, she surprised us with a box of cookies tossed from her window as a thank you. My German was nonexistent at that time, but our neighbors were kind to us from the beginning.
Meeting one kind individual in the new country shifts the paradigm. And you have the power to become that very 'local' who radiates warmth and creates a new social norm for others.
There’s nothing wrong with the locals after all. Whether you want it or not, spending a few years in the same place gradually transforms you into one of them.