I think I’m generally a good communicator (or at least I hope so), but one of the things I struggle with sometimes is communicating my life out here at college to friends and family when I go home; I think this struggle is more complex when you also go to college in a different country with different cultural barriers and norms! I’m not talking about communicating with immediate family, but instead I’m talking about those family members or friends who I see a couple of times a year and who often ask that loaded question, “how’s college going” or “what are you doing at the moment.” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with asking these questions, but they’re often so hard to answer! For me, my internal struggle is, “how do I fit all the details of my wonderful but overwhelmingly full college life into an answer to one question.”
I usually just end up replying “good” to these questions because it’s too hard to explain everything and even if I were able to organize all my thoughts in a concise manner, sometimes without context the things I would say don’t make sense. For example, if someone back home asked me what I spend most of my time doing at college or who I spend most of my time with, I would say I spend it with the college management consulting club I’m a part of. That might sound really strange and nerdy out of context, but within the context of Georgetown that is completely normal and most students would give similar answers relating to pre-professional organizations because that’s a huge part of the Georgetown social life structure (but okay, it’s still slightly nerdy).
It’s so difficult to take a step back and explain your life at college in a way that makes sense to someone who is not living and breathing that lifestyle everyday or who isn’t familiar with the norms and traditions of your school. For example, at Georgetown getting into a student organization is a super competitive process and organizations become the basis of your social life. Getting into the tour guide society is one of the most competitive clubs at Georgetown and it’s a big deal if you’re accepted, but if you were to tell people back home that you made it into the tour guide society they would probably just reply with “oh cool” rather than “that’s insane!! That was such a competitive recruiting cycle, lets go celebrate!” that someone at Georgetown might reply with. It’s just difficult and sometimes it can be disappointing when you’re so hyped for something but it doesn’t get the reaction you want it to or think it’s worthy of back home.
It’s kind of this self-perpetuating cycle because oftentimes when things don’t get the reaction I think they deserve back home I’ll get disappointed and then just stop sharing, which in turn means that people just stop asking or reacting. So, how can we fix this communication glitch? I don’t have all the answers and I think this is an ongoing learning opportunity, however, I do have a few tips.
My first tip is to adjust your expectations. That sounds annoying, but I feel like you can’t expect people back home to understand what a big deal it is that you’re a school tour guide or be as hyped as you are that you got into a pre-professional club. In your mind you should know that just because they don’t meet you with the same excitement, it doesn’t mean that they’re not happy for you or don’t care. It also doesn’t mean that you should also stop sharing exciting news or general college life with them – just adjust your expectations!
This brings me onto my second tip, continue to include people back home in your world. Even if you might only see these people once or twice a year and that’s the only time you catch up with them, keep sharing your life with them during those conversations and talking about those things that are important to you. I know from being on the other side of those conversations that when my friends bring up the same activities, experiences, or people again and again when we do our big catch ups at home, those are the things that are really meaningful and important in their college lives and I make an effort to ask about those things. You can’t expect to be understood if you don’t put the information out there!
My third tip is to use framing as a tool. To get over that hurdle of others not understanding the context of your experiences, you can try re-framing them to have more of an emphasis of your own emotions or growth instead of the actual event. For example, instead of saying, “oh I’m a project manager for my school’s consulting club this semester” I could say, “oh I’m really excited because I’m a project manager this semester which means I’ll have lots of opportunities to lead a team, work with a client, and mentor other younger students.” Since there’s more of an emphasis on the emotions and learning surrounding the opportunity, I think it’s a lot easier to understand!
Similar to this, another tip I have is to provide a comparison to something familiar. This is probably one that you often invoke the most often, since it comes the most naturally to us. When explaining something new that might be completely out of context outside your college community, try and compare it to something universally familiar or something familiar to back home. For example, when explaining “club culture” at Georgetown and how the student organizations that you are in become your social life, I sometimes compare them to sororities and fraternities since they are something that is universally understood.
My last piece of advice and perhaps the most obvious is to provide context! Oftentimes when I’m explaining a part of my college life to someone back home I’ll start out by saying, “at Georgetown XYZ is really popular” or “it’s a tradition that we do XYZ at Georgetown” before telling the story. Sometimes even just providing those small pieces of context can be extremely helpful in communicating clearly.
While these might seem like small tips to fix a trivial problem, I think they have a larger impact. Being able to communicate our college experiences to people at home can help you feel connected and help you keep up relationships with different people, not to mention that more generally practicing how to communicate clearly can only be an asset! As I always say, this blog is a space to ask those questions about college and international life that you just can’t google or figure out on your own – so I hope this post did exactly that!
See you next week,