Posted by: Catherine Weston | September 26, 2012

Words of welcome

This month marks our twenty eighth year of welcoming newly arrived international students. Checking our visitor’s book, I find that on Thursday 26 September 1985 we welcomed Mustafa, Ahmed, Claudia, Christa, Stefan, Gabriela, Marcel and Rolf into our home for a meal. Nationalities may only be guessed at, but I think they include Turkey, Italy and Switzerland.

I realised recently that there’s someone who’s been welcoming visitors to our country a lot longer than I have – sixty years in fact. Not long ago I watched part of a TV documentary about the daily life and work of our Queen and was interested to notice what the camera captured of an occasion when she welcomed some foreign delegations for an informal audience.  Once the introductions were over she asked an individual, “Have you been to Britain before?” and followed up with “Is it what you expected?”

I am told that encounters with royalty tend to cause normally confident speakers to be reduced to inarticulate mumblings! The Queen has clearly learned over many years what questions are helpful to open up conversation in an unthreatening way and thus put people at their ease. Sometimes closed questions like the first one are useful for clarification, but the more open follow up clearly gives someone permission to talk about their experiences of Britain, without appearing to be rude to the monarch!

Here are some of the things I have learned about striking up conversation with someone who has just arrived from another country.

DO be prepared to introduce yourself first and talk a little bit about your life so that your listener is not threatened by a barrage of questions. It’s not very British, but it’s particularly helpful in relating to E Asians.

DO listen carefully to yourself as you ask questions and avoid most of the ones that could be answered with a yes or no.  These are known as closed questions because they can quickly close down the conversation or at least make it very hard going.

DO speak clearly avoiding too much idiom and jargon. (Speaking louder is unnecessary and patronising). If you take the trouble to pronounce the end of each word fully (rather than slurring words together as we often do), you’ll find you naturally go at a pace that aids comprehension.

DO remember it takes time to adjust to the speech patterns of native English, even for a fluent ESL speaker.  This is especially true if your accent deviates widely from the ‘standard’ pronunciation they will be more familiar with! This means taking time to wait for an answer before jumping in with a rephrased question, something I am still learning!

DO ask open questions like “What do you notice that’s different here?” “What do you like to do for recreation?” Or give invitations like “Tell me about your family” or “Tell me about your home town.”

DON’T ask “What do you like about Britain?” when they’ve just arrived, or worse “Do you like it here?” They may be homesick and jet lagged, had a long queue at immigration or just endured several days of all that British weather has thrown at them. (Later on, when they’ve settled in a bit, is the time to ask what they like and don’t like about living here.)

DON’T make assumptions.  Canadians don’t like to be thought American any more than Kiwis like to be thought Australian. Remember the storm caused by mixing up North and South Korean flags at the start of the Olympics. Much better to always say “Where do you come from?” rather than “You’re from Japan, aren’t you?” to a Chinese.

DON’T latch on to some half remembered negative news item about their country for a conversation opener (as in: “isn’t there a problem with child prostitution/corruption/pollution in your country?”) Ouch. If you don’t know much about their country, admit it and say “Tell me what are the things you are proud about in your country” because a) there will be many and b) you’re less likely to hear about them in the news.

If you’re involved with welcoming new international students, take time to savour the privilege and opportunity to learn more of God’s world through the people he brings to our nation to study.



  1. I remember Tony Waite (remember him …?) saying that you should always try and start a question with a “W” or an “H” which would be less inclined to produce your “closed” circumstance with a “yes” or “no” reply (why is Honda on your blogsite !)

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