How Volunteering can help YOU Make Friends and Learn a New Culture. - ExpatJoy

ExpatJoy - Passionate Global Living with Sandra Bissell


How Volunteering can help YOU Make Friends and Learn a New Culture.

I adore when these presents come in the form of moments such as meeting friends at some airport around the world, encountering a neighbor at the local grocery store, or getting to chat with friends and family I don’t get to see frequently.

The other day, I drove for about an hour to do just that – visit a cousin.

This is one of the perks of having some family around us now.

I only had a couple of hours to spend with Julie, and I anticipated a morning filled with light conversations and the niceties one tends to share with those we don’t get to see much.

Please don’t take it in the wrong way. I very much enjoy spending time with this cousin, and we have had many insightful conversations in the past.

After greetings and sharing a bit about everyday life (work, kids, house chores, etc.) she told me that her volunteering work was taking a lot of her time and energy.

Being a volunteer isn’t something new to Julie. As a child, she heard stories of her family participation in the civil rights movements and saw lots of examples of how to contribute to society at her own home.

Nowadays, she spends many hours at her new church and is one of the only females in their committee.

Born and raised American,  Julie is in an international marriage and lives in a racially diverse community. Her church isn’t much different – most of the members are immigrants. 

Here are the three biggest challenges Julie is facing: being one of the only women in her church’s committee and dealing with a lack of female participation as volunteers and events attendees.

I sensed that there was a little cultural “something” from our talk, and I was eager to hear more.

I wanted to help Julie find out how to increase women’s involvement in her house of prayer.

As our conversation progressed, my mind got sidetracked with thoughts of my own volunteering experience in the United States.

Volunteering is a great way for newcomers to meet people and to learn about the local culture on top of giving back to the community.

After arriving in the US, I’m happily getting involved in a couple causes very dear to me – immigrants and diversity. diversity around the globe

However, as a newcomer, I choose to keep a low profile in these volunteering committees.

I told Julie that maybe the women in her church were doing the same as I was doing – holding back.

Why would someone hold back? She asked.

And here is where I knew we were in completely different roles!

If Julie, who is a highly experienced in international issues, is unable to clearly see what is going gone with the non-American-born women in her community, how about the rest of us?

Can we see a situation without our own culture bias taking over?

Let’s be honest, if Julie can’t navigate amidst all this culture “stuff,” can we?

Culture misreading may be preventing you from enjoying your international experience.

What can be done?

– Observe

– Put yourself in other people’s shoes.

– Talk to a third party.

– Be the change.


 Before jumping into a new situation, observe.

For the result-oriented type, it can be tempting to get to the solving part of business immediately. This can blind some of us to important aspects of group’s dynamics.

By detaching yourself from the issue at hand, looking from different angles, you may find effective ways to get to your goal even faster, while fostering better relationships and creating win-win interactions.

Put yourself in other people’s shoes

Always cultivate a sense of empathy toward those around you. Seeing and feeling the world from others’ perspectives is captivating and brings so much insight to our lives.

Enrich your international life by relating to people around you on a deeper level.

In a culturally diverse environment, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes will transform some odd moments into learning opportunities.

Julie and I realized that we were living very different roles at this moment.

My holding back attitude is a protective mechanism. It allows me to take time to understand my new surroundings and get adjusted, Of course, this same attitude of waiting and not getting involved can be detrimental to my own adjusting to this new society, 

Julie expectation that  immigrants in her church should just  “get busy and down to business,” in this case volunteering, is a reflection of her local bias. She is well adjusted to her society, fluent in the local language and culturally savvy.

By exposing my fears and doubts about “getting down to business,” I was able to show Julie how by stepping into these other women shoes and understanding their position and attitudes from that angle could benefit both her and the female immigrants in her church.

I was feeling very happy to help Julie and myself!

Talk to a third party

Have you ever had a problem disappear after talking it over with a friend?

Most of us have had this experience of just explaining an issue to someone and coming to a different conclusion on it by ourselves. The act of talking it over to someone else plus the need to organize our thoughts can lead to this outcome.

I suggest that you rely on someone whose opinion your trust and who is unbiased on the topic. 

Be the change

Now that you have learned three valuable ways to deal with cultural misreading – observation, putting yourself in other people’s shoes and talking to a third party – you can reevaluate some culturally charged situations you may have been part of in the past.

What insights did you get?  Were you the one holding back? Or did you assume that others should act accordingly to your own culture?

No worries, there is no right of wrong answers here.


Create opportunities, such as volunteering, to learn and get acquainted with your new culture.  Newcomers may the able to shorten their adaptation phase as they refine their cultural difference awareness and self-judge their own cultural biases.

I believe that Volunteering is not only a key way to help our community as a fellow human being, to learn about new cultures and to make friends.  It’s also a fantastic personal development tool to help YOU step into new situations with confidence and grow into the most beautiful version of yourself.

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My name is Sandra Bissell.
I have been blessed with the opportunity to live as an expatriate for more than 2 decades.

Some of my passions are people, my family, good conversations, traveling, ethnic food, dancing and Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian-Martial-Art-Dance.

Originally from the countryside of São Paulo state, in Brazil, I have enjoyed life in Kanagawa and Aichi prefectures, in Japan, Boston and San Diego cities, in the United States, São Paulo, Brazil, as an expatriate in my own country, Zurich – Switzerland and most recently Stamford, Connecticut, back to the United States.

As you may guess, I feel the most comfortable within the international community.
ExpatJoy - Passionate Global Living with Sandra Bissell


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