Communicating as a FOB design student in San Francisco
Come on in if you are confused by small talks, shy to speak up or feel like you would never fit in.
You got off the plane.
Sunlight shone through the glass windows of the San Francisco airport, and revealed spirals of dust fleeting aimlessly in the chilly air.
Oh my god, this feels weird.
I am actually here.
Anticipation and excitement fills your body. As you walk across the airport lobby in search for transportation, you can’t help but wonder about all the people you will meet, the parties you will go, the encounters you will…
Wait, what is going on here?
Your first encounter in the Land of Opportunity is a hostile and confusing mess that people commonly refer to as a “BART ticketing kiosk”. Before coming here, you had high expectations of the digital services in a city full of great UX designers. Well, now you are having second thoughts. After 10 minutes of struggle, you successfully bought a ticket. You think to yourself:
I guess I am tired from the long flight. Things will get better when I settle down.
Things do not get better. Your last drop of positivity dissipates as you try pushing two heavy luggages up a monstrously steep hill towards your airbnb apartment — which you’ve booked because it’s the cheapest among all the other ridiculously expensive options. And as the saying goes, what you pay is what you get. Your mouldy room comes with a set of unclean covers and three snoring roommates.
Just when you think to yourself that nothing could go more wrong, you run into a housemate in the kitchen, and the small talk happened. There’s nothing more agonising to an Asian introvert than to have a conversation around “How’s going?” with a complete stranger. Coming from a culture where “minding your own business” is celebrated, you have become someone who’s frugal with your words.
You put on a polite smile and squeeze out the word “Good”, and you do not know that you are supposed to return the question. A follow-up question soon breaks the brief moment of silence: “Cool, where are you from?”. You mutter the answer, and again, not returning the question.
Oh my god, this feels weird.
I am actually here.
That was a dramatised version of the cultural shock I had when I just arrived San Francisco. Although I definitely handled situations in real life with more composure, the inability to communicate with locals due to cultural barriers still worries me.
After four months into school, I have came into terms with the American communication culture. Being an interaction design student means that a good chunk of your time shall be spent talking to different people. Here’s what I found to be the best practices of making those conversations:
Talking to strangers
One of the biggest tasks as a design student is to conduct user interviews on the streets. The best way get responses is to be completely upfront about your intention, and be precise about it. A good way to start is to say “Hello! I am a design student researching on ‘topic x’. Do you have a moment to talk about it?” Some would start by giving a small speech about their academic backgrounds, research focus, project goals and so on. Details about yourself could come later in the conversation if the audience is interested, but as far as ice-breaking goes, it is better to give them a heads-up of what you need from them.
Also, be prepared for the questions they might have for you. Again, the principle here is to make it all about them, not yourself. What would make them more comfortable in sharing their opinion? What would make them more willing to spend time on this interview? Generally, interviewees would want an estimate of the time needed for the interview, the number of questions they need to answer…etc. So even if you intended the interview to be casual and non-directed, it would still be better to prepare some sort of answers regarding the format of the interview.
Being culturally intelligent
It is common to react to an unfamiliar situation according to your instinct rather than the cultural context. When somebody gives me a compliment, I would instinctively deny it. In traditional Chinese culture, it is the polite way to respond. In American culture, however, it may come off as a buzz killer. There are a lot more interesting East versus West differences, and it is important to acknowledge them and adjust your behaviour accordingly.
First of all, observe what other people are doing. For example, you are in a party, and you find that people would say goodbye to everyone before heading out. In your culture, Irish goodbyes are the norm. You take a mental note of that difference. The second step here is crucial — withhold your judgement. Don’t start to evaluate whether the practice is good, meaningful, or appropriate. When you begin to judge the “American goodbye”, you may dread that you would interrupt conversations in the party, or convince yourself that no one needs to be informed of your departure. This would only further deter you from adapting to a new culture.
Finally, do not assume that people would read your behaviour from a cultural perspective. In China, it is easy to spot the foreigners and empathise with their outlandish behaviours. San Francisco, however, is a melting pot of all kinds of ethnicities, so there is really no absolute telling of who’s a local or not. In other words, how you behave would be interpreted as a part of your personality. And you definitely do not want to be perceived as someone who’s inept of socialising, especially in a professional environment.
The truth is, you could not just read some articles online and become a communication expert right away. It takes time to practice and internalise all those skills. Just remember: Focus on others instead of yourself, observe attentively, and withheld your judgement. One day you might step out of the San Francisco airport, take a deep breath of the mind-clearing air, and think to yourself:
It’s great to be back!