This is going to be a Slightly Serious post. I’m offering some very general advice for international students coming to the University of Edinburgh. It will be mostly based of my personal experiences as an American, so I’m sorry if you feel like certain things don’t apply to you. I’m not really going to deal with things like finance, accommodation, or city life in this post (I’ve linked the University pages on those things if you’re looking for that, and I may talk about my own experiences with them in later posts). I’m just sticking to interpersonal relationships, and how to be mindful of others. These are all my own opinions built from my own observations, and they’re guidelines, not strict rules.
Don’t comment on stranger’s accents.
The UK has a HUGE amount of linguistic variety, which is really cool and interesting. People sound really cool and interesting. But if you tell someone that their accent is “cute” or “funny”, even if you mean it as a compliment, they will probably just feel self-conscious, especially if you imitate them or ask them to repeat a word because you like how it sounds. In the UK accents are often very strongly linked to certain social classes or stereotypes, and it can be awkward to have that shoved in your face. If you can’t understand someone’s accent, just politely ask them to repeat themselves – they’ll slow down or use different terms. If you really can’t understand… just look increasingly panicked and helpless until they start over, someone else comes to your rescue, or the conversation fizzles out and you both shuffle away, hoping to never see each other again. Anyway that’s my strategy. Also, people may have trouble understanding you, so extend the same courtesy! I’m not trying to say that you can’t ever talk about accents with people – just don’t obsess over it when you first meet someone. Get to know people and they’ll probably be happy to talk about their accent and the area they come from.
Don’t assume that people are making assumptions about you.
This one I’m writing specifically to Americans – the United States is very, uh, visible, so people are generally semi-informed about American politics, culture, and lifestyle. And Americans often go abroad with the expectation that people in other countries know things about America, which is true to an extent. There’s a certain stereotype in American culture that other countries find us arrogant and blundering. In my personal experience, that’s an American stereotype, not a Scottish one! I’ve noticed that Americans sometimes come to this country with the expectation that people already have poor opinions of them, and use that to excuse their own rude behavior. Don’t be that guy. Think of yourself as a low-key cultural ambassador. You may find that you’re the first American someone has met – if you are respectful, polite, and don’t force your views on them, they’ll like you better and have a generally better impression of Americans. Most people that I meet here are very open-minded and curious about what America is actually like. Even if you’re only here for a semester, you’ll meet more interesting people, have more fun, and get a better sense of Scottish culture if you let go of the perception that non-Americans hate us.
Educate yourself beforehand, but keep an open mind.
It’s nice to come to a country with some understanding of the political and social climate, and you’ll be able to have more interesting conversations that way. But if you come here with fully-formed opinions and not a lot of facts to back them up, you could risk offending someone or being debated through the floor. For example I came to Edinburgh a year before the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum. It came up when I was talking to my Scottish flatmate, who I had met a few days before. I said something like “But the whole independence movement is just stupid posturing, right?” because I had read some (English) articles that said so. Big mistake. The point is, learn the facts of what’s happening in the UK, but don’t establish an emotional attachment to either side. If you want to know what someone thinks about an issue, keep your questions open-ended and open-minded – even if you don’t agree. Also keep in mind that UK politics probably don’t affect you as much as it affects people in the UK and EU – if you feel like people act like your opinions are less valid than yours, it’s because, well, your opinions are less valid.
Just as a general rule, be polite, be respectful, be curious, and try not to make assumptions. I know this seems really obvious but in practice it can be kind of hard, or at least it is for me. The things I talked about above are just times when I put my foot in my mouth without realising, and wish I had known not to do beforehand. But when you come here, the most important thing is that you’re happy, having fun, and learning. In that order.
If you’re international student and you’re struggling to make friends or are overwhelmed by being in an unfamiliar country, you’re not alone. Get in touch with the International Student Centre, join Edinburgh Buddies, or try a society to meet friendly, like-minded people.