The expression “Southern Hospitality” is usually defined as “showing graciousness, kindness, and warmth to others”. Visiting the American South recently, I feel like I got to experience it first hand — people in general were friendly, welcoming and very helpful. I don’t know that Southern Hospitality is truly a thing, or if I simply got lucky in my interactions and happened to meet some really nice people. Regardless, my overall impression was a positive one — I found it smooth to get around because I wasn’t afraid of asking “stupid” questions or taking a wrong turn. It was easy to talk to people because they seemed happy to share what they knew and liked about where they lived.

I’ve been thinking about the experience quite a bit since returning home, partly because it’s such a contrast to the current news from around the world, which seems centered mostly on topics concerning how to keep people out rather than make them feel welcomed, but also because the concept makes so much sense — extending a friendly smile or helping hand when someone is looking for assistance, directions or a place to go, seems a win-win kind of deal. I mean, the worst that can happen is that you’ve been friendly. Meanwhile, the upside is endless — you might strike up an interesting conversation, learn something new, maybe even make a friend.

Traveling as a tourist is of course different from moving to a foreign country, but there are some parallels. Sometimes, all it takes to remedy the feeling of being lost and confused is some  guidance from someone more intimately familiar with the surroundings. I remember trying to figure out how to buy tram tickets from an automatic dispenser in Lisbon and getting stumped over and over again. Eventually, the person behind me took mercy on me and decided to lend a hand — once I knew what to do it was fairly easy — I am sure I would have figured it out all by myself, at some point, maybe…

I think settling in a new country is a little bit like that — if you stay long enough and try hard enough, you’ll eventually get how things work, you’ll start feeling at home. However, it is oh-so-much-easier when you have someone who can show you the ropes, who can give you a hint of how things are done — a mentor at work who can decipher the ins and outs of the office dynamics, a seasoned fellow parent at your children’s school to help explain the PTA, fundraising and volunteering, a wise neighbor to help figure out paperwork, a friendly face to talk to. In short — a support network. This is something we have in our home countries through friends and family, and what most of us miss when first heading out into the unknown.

I think the natural inclination of many who live and work abroad is to seek out others in the same boat — other expats who are also trying to find their footing and figure out life in a new environment. Bonding with locals, or those who are firmly settled, can be a little trickier. However, often times all you need for that first breakthrough is simply to dare ask for help, to extend your own hand, or give a friendly smile. A little hospitality goes a long way.

By: Felicia Shermis

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