3 Lessons for International Students About Dating in the U.S.

International students should speak to a significant other about expectations to avoid cross-cultural confusion.

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International students should speak to a significant other about expectations to avoid cross-cultural confusion.
International students should speak to a significant other about expectations to avoid cross-cultural confusion.

Understanding the influences and misunderstandings that come from crossed signals is the key to happier, more successful college friendships. Dating rituals and expectations for casual friendships are shaped by where we come from as well.

International students who encounter people from other countries know that it makes sense to pay attention to those expectations. 

When I was first dating my husband, he was an international student from Nicaragua studying in Canada. His customs dictated a very slow, but intentional approach to finding, wooing and keeping a significant other. 

He never officially asked me out using a variation of the question, "Would you like to be my girlfriend?" Instead, he told me that he was having a lot of fun spending time with me and would like to get to know me better. 

[Learn the keys to understanding your U.S. classmates.] 

Having said that and having me agree was enough in his mind to establish our exclusivity as a couple. If he hadn't kissed me right after, we could have "dated" for months and I would never have known it! 

Since coming to the U.S., I've had several friends encounter the same uncertainty when it comes to relationships. Because of cultural differences, they view and value dating in ways students born and bred in the U.S. may not. 

College relationships are a part of the study-abroad experience, but to avoid some of the embarrassment and misunderstanding that is inherent in intercultural relationships, there are a few things to keep in mind. 

[Find out how to prepare for an American college roommate.] 

1. Dating can be many things, even accidental. North American culture cultivates an understanding of dating that involves both spending time together and shared activities. While one or the other of these options does not necessarily imply a committed dating relationship, you may have some questions to answer if you participate in both. 

A friend of mine from Africa spent a lot of time talking and studying with a classmate of his, and after being separated for one of the school breaks, he was convinced they should marry. 

Unfortunately, her view of the time they spent together was different from his. She saw their relationship as platonic, while his experience indicated that two people would only be together for that amount of time and participate in the same extracurricular activities if they were a couple. 

2. Dating is known by many different names. In the girls' dorm at my university, there was confusion one night over a South American suitor who showed up to "court his beloved." We were all pretty sure we knew what he meant, but the young lady he was there to pick up simply thought she was going out to dinner with her boyfriend. 

It's a bit of a silly twist of words, but ideas lost in translation can lead to surprising outcomes. I made the mistake of inviting someone to "hook up" with me later, only to learn that this slang phrase is used to refer to a type of intimate activity that I was not at all suggesting. 

Whether you're "attached," "going out" or "seeing someone," make sure to ask questions about what you will be doing and with whom in order to clarify the expectations and make an informed decision. 

[Get tips on making friends at a U.S. college.] 

3. Dating can occur during group events. Sometimes group events can act as intimate venues. While my husband and I were dating, we hardly ever went on what I would call "dates." We went to concerts with friends, cheered at our school's athletic events and volunteered together, but these activities rarely included lit candles and fresh flowers. 

I was anticipating a more dressed-up Hollywood approach to dating, but that was based on the culture I'd been raised in. My then-boyfriend's influences emphasized a more community-based, collectively shared dating experience. I just had to learn to tell the difference. 

The extracurricular advantage of traveling for school is that you'll meet a lot of fun and wonderful people. Knowing where you stand with each of the new faces is an important part of shaping the connection you want and making it last. 

Regardless of heritage and history, relationships are tricky and throwing an international flavor into the mix can make everything more complicated. If it's worth having, it's worth the time and effort to make it work. 

Katelyn Ruiz, from Canada, is pursuing an interdisciplinary master's degree in communication and English from Andrews University.