Recently, I’ve been thinking about how to have difficult conversations regarding sensitive topics while abroad. I have had many instances where in conversation with other students and city locals, heavy and energized topics come up. Having these conversations abroad are different compared to having them in america.
I have found great courage in navigating these kinds of moments from the actions of an inspiring friend. Earlier this semester, a friend of mine and I were standing in a line to purchase tickets in Rome. We couldn’t help but overhear a conversation that seemed to be growing behind us regarding gender and gender fluidity. When the conversation seemed to get uncomfortable after aggressive and insulting comments were made, my friend didn’t miss a beat before turning around and starting a conversation with the people. It was a simple, direct statement. It was neutral, informative, and coming from a genuine place. The people who had made the statements behind us immediately reflected, apologized, and corrected their tone. The moment lingered in the air for a bit but it wasn’t heavy; I think it was just unfamiliar to all of us.
Later, I thanked my friend for saying what they said. I’ve heard plenty of reasons why stepping up and speaking out in the moment is important but I didn’t know what it looked like until then. Moving forward from the event, I’ve learned a few important lessons when discussing and approaching sensitive topics while abroad.
1. Always ask questions.
Past experiences and environments can shape ideas, beliefs, and opinions. Because of this, I found that it is important to refrain from confrontation and instead open the space to have an open dialogue about where the ideas we have come from. Studying at an American university brings together a diverse group of students and having open conversations about hard things can be such an enriching experience.
2. Communicate clearly.
Communication abroad has been difficult for me. How exactly do you stand up to speak out across a language barrier? In the case with my friend, we spoke the same language and therefore clear communication was easy, leaving little to be inferred and misinterpreted. I found staying away from assumptions and being aware of my own tone helps with communicating. Even with good intentions, it’s always important to be mindful and considerate of the impact of words against and across the language barrier.
3. Let go, when/if it’s time to let go.
The air was a little heavy after my friend started the conversation but it simmered shortly after. We were sure to move on from it in the moment. Since then, we’ve talked about the situation, but I know moving on in the moment, given the circumstances, helped keep the tensions low while still holding everyone accountable.
These are just a few things I’ve learned so far when approaching difficult situations and conversations. Of course, this minor list doesn’t capture a full picture; however, I found myself taking these insightful observations from the situation with my friend–a friend I’m lucky to call mine.