International Love: Advice on Cross-cultural Dating and Relationships

“You know, I have a son who is just about your age,” said the woman sitting next to me in the shared taxi. “You are very pretty. You would be a great wife for him. And then he could go to America with you.”

“No thanks, I’m already married,” I replied. This was, in fact, a lie. I was in the Peace Corps in Cameroon, and this was not the first time I’d received a marriage proposal driven solely by the color of my skin and my nationality. I was open to cross-cultural relationships, but not this way.

I’ve gone on dates with men from France, Ireland, England, Italy, Bosnia, Poland, India, Iran, Turkey, Cameroon, Belgium, Senegal, the DRC, and South Africa…. And there may be more – I just can’t remember!

When you date someone who doesn’t look like you, it can be easier to remember your differences – and maintain cultural sensitivity and awareness to avoid insulting them. However, it can be easy to overlook that you are from completely different worlds if you have the same complexion. You may find yourself wondering what you said or did that was so offensive, completely forgetting that you grew up with different rules and customs. But don’t beat yourself up. Dating someone from another culture is interesting and fun – and you just might learn something.

A few tips on dating someone from another culture, whether in your home country, theirs, or a third country abroad.

  1. Be prepared for things to move a lot faster than you are used to (especially if you’re American). Americans are obsessed with playing games when they date, as well as arbitrary rules (the third date rule, for example, isn’t generally practiced in other countries). If you are traveling or living overseas, there may be an “expiration date” (when one of you gets on a plane back home) that will threaten the relationship. This might inspire you and your date to feel freer – to proclaim your love for each other or imagine a life together if only one of you weren’t leaving. Conversely, it also might make you more afraid to open up and really like someone. With looming end dates, you may have to make a decision about your future together much sooner than under “normal” circumstances. You’ll have to decide whether or not the person would be worth a major life change, which can be hard to know after only a short time. It can put a lot of pressure on the relationship – and this type of pressure is one of the main reasons I’ve struggled to find long-term relationships overseas. The best strategy is to stay as honest yet kind as possible – and make sure everyone’s expectations are clear. Leave the games at the door!
  2. Men and women from other countries may be much more willing to talk about their feelings. Hearing passionate words from someone you just started dating can feel overwhelming, but it’s helpful to remember that saying “I love you,” or “I’m in love with you,” may not have the same gravity in another culture as it does in a country like the US. Try exploring what it feels like to express your own feelings without worrying that you’re sharing too much. Isn’t it nice?
  3. Celebrate your cultural differences – it provides endless fodder for conversations. From food, to bodily functions, to religious practices, to sex, to family, to gender roles (often one of the bigger issues) – if you date someone from another culture, be prepared for misunderstandings. If you date a Muslim man, you may find yourself insulted when he ritualistically cleanses himself after he touches you. You might be intimidated by how your Italian boyfriend reveres his mother, and his mother might refuse to speak English to you even though you know she is fluent. Even if you’re in a committed relationship, your partner’s friends of the opposite gender may come on to them without any regard to your feelings because that person is convinced that you won’t be able to truly satisfy your partner. You may be horrified by the amount of money your partner gives to family and friends back home – but you must understand that they have financial obligations driven by deep cultural norms. There is no use arguing!
  4. Brush up on current events and go into political discussions with an open mind. This is especially true if you are from a country that has somewhat notorious international policies (such as the US or Iran). You may find that your partner, partner’s friends, or family quiz you about your country’s politics – and express unabashed distaste for anything controversial. If they ask you questions that you don’t know the answer to, prepare to feel embarrassed. They may know more about what your president has said recently than you do. Instead of getting defensive, keep an open mind, and think of it as a learning opportunity to see how your country is viewed through the eyes of another. Make an effort to show your partner that you care and read up on the history and politics of their country.  
  5. Figure out what your deal-breakers are early on. Do they only want to live in their country? Would they want you to convert to their religion, should you ever get married? Would they expect you to quit your job? Would they expect you to be obedient, like women from their culture? When you love someone, it can be difficult to discern which of their values come from who they are as a person and which values come from their culture. We are often taught that people with different values from us are somehow bad or morally reprehensible. But the truth is, everyone just wants what’s best for themselves and their children. You will have to decide if significant differences in values will cause too much conflict and unhappiness or if both of you are willing to be more flexible, understanding, and open-minded. 
  6. Understand that one of you will likely need to communicate in a language that is not your mother tongue. This can leave that person feeling tired and misunderstood. Unless they are completely fluent, things like humor and sarcasm sometimes don’t translate, and the person might feel that they can’t completely be themselves. Moreover, they might feel particularly uncomfortable reading and writing in your common language. Be patient and kind. You might be tempted to correct their grammar. Make sure they are okay with it and save it to light conversations. Make an effort to learn some of their language too, to show you care.
  7. If you are dating someone because they are exotic, understand that they may feel the same way about you. I’ve had men tell me that they’ve always wanted to have sex with a white woman – as if that would entice me. Someone’s skin color or accent can be sexy, but unless you are both clear that this is a short-term romance or a fling, be honest with yourself about your motivation. Do you really like them for who they are, or do you think it just sounds cool to say that you are dating someone from another country?
  8. Be safe. If you connect with people on dating apps or make a date with someone you just met, make sure that a friend or family member knows where you are. Meet up with that person for the first time in a public place. If you are in a tourist destination, your date may have expectations that you will get physical with them right away, especially if you are from a country where women (or men) have a reputation for being easy. Decide what you are willing to do and not do in advance, and only drink as much alcohol as you can manage. People tend to be reckless on vacation, and other people take advantage of it. Trust your gut!

And above all, have fun! (Photo is of me and my boyfriend – a South African – in Lombok, Indonesia).

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