An interesting thing happens when you travel the world and when you meet people who are from different countries and different cultures and who speak different languages than you. That interesting thing? Well, sometimes romance blooms.

There are so many of us who are in committed relationships with people from a different country than our own or who speak a different first language than we do, and there are probably even more people than that who have had a romantic fling with someone from another country or another culture.


Now, granted, there are some ways in which we need to tread more carefully about this topic because we do still tend to "exotify" people from other countries — you know, "tall, dark, and handsome" or "sexy accent" or whatever stereotype we play into about these countries. It is important to remember that the people that we interact with or feel romantic sparks with from other countries are the same as us. They have the same whole universe of thoughts and feelings happening inside of their heads, and they are the main characters of their own stories as they move through this world. No one person that we meet is just a plot element in our story, even (especially) the sexy guy or gal you meet during your summer study abroad program. So the message with that is for us to always treat others with respect and to expect to be treated with respect. That's the golden rule of dating across cultures and languages is to not treat a lack of language proficiency as a lack of intelligence or a lack of humanity or a lack of being equal to us.

Let's try a little thought experiment. Think about yourself and a language that you don't speak — let's say you don't speak Japanese or you don't speak Afrikaans, choose any language that you don't speak. Imagine if you were plopped down in a setting where people are only speaking that language and you're trying to get by, but all you know how to say is hello. So you're just saying, "Konichiwa, konichiwa" to everyone around you. You would very quickly feel frustrated if people were treating you like you were stupid, right? Because there are certainly things you can understand through nonverbal communication. If someone was offering you food, or if someone was pointing at a sign showing you where the bathroom was, you would easily understand that. But if someone was acting like you didn't know how to eat that food, or you didn't know what to do once you got to the bathroom, then you would feel insulted, thinking, "Hey, I'm an intelligent person. How dare you talk to me like this?" That's important to remember because we can find a lack of that in ourselves sometimes if someone doesn't speak our language. We might feel like we need to "dumb things down" in a sense, which is just completely unnecessary.

So with that disclaimer about respect, let's get into the one thing that needs to be universally understood. There's a lot of fun and there's a lot of sexiness in having a relationship or fling with somebody where you don't have complete understanding of each other's cultural icebergs and each other's worlds. There's a lot of fun in figuring that out and discovering yourself, each other, and your relationship.


There's one space where it's really, really, really important to push for clarity and not just let things be humorous misunderstandings or funny stories to tell your friends later, and that's when it comes to having a physical relationship and especially the importance of consent. Misunderstandings can almost be fun in other areas, like it might make a funny story if you are talking on the phone and you can't quite communicate directions to each other and so it takes you an extra 40 minutes to meet up because one of you keeps taking wrong turns or not finding the right landmarks.


Let me give an example of a humorous misunderstanding. My parents visited me in Turkey and we went to a restaurant. My dad ordered a drink, and later on in the meal, the waiter came back and asked if he'd like another. My dad said, "I'm okay," and yet, minutes later, the waiter brought him another drink. I explained to my dad later that likely what happened was that the waiter just heard the word "okay" and thought, "Okay means yes," right? But we say something like "I'm okay" to mean "no," because it feels more polite than just saying, "No." But it can (and did) lead to misunderstanding if the other person isn't familiar with the way in which you say it. So that was kind of a funny story, something that we enjoyed laughing about later saying, "Lesson learned. Next time be more clear with how I say no, and maybe use gestures too, just to be 100% clear."

But if that same kind of conversation and confusion about "yes" and "no" happens when you're in the bedroom and things are heating up, it's not going to make that same kind of funny anecdote to relate later because it might end up being a violation of someone's boundaries.

It's just not a situation that we want to find ourselves in. So my advice, in the spirit of respecting each other, each other's boundaries, and each other's bodies, is that clarity wins. It's so much more important to be clear about what each of you is asking. "Hey, is it okay if I do this now?" It's important to be sure that the other person knows what's going on. Let your funny stories in this realm be the awkward dialogue between the two of you when you're clarifying your intent and desire and asking the other person for theirs. It's not going to sound like the dialogue of a really sexy romantic film or something like that, but it is something that's going to leave you feeling a lot better afterwards than if you wake up the next morning thinking, "Oh my gosh, what happened? Why did that happen? How could he or she have thought that that was what I was asking to have happen?"

So, respect yourself, respect the person you're with, and let that respect give you the courage to have vulnerable conversations. Be courageous enough to seek clarity over a romantic trope.


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