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3. Branching out: getting a network


Furnham and Bochner (1986) surveyed a wide range of research that had been done on the problems people face when they move into a new culture. They refer to this movement as “culture traveling”. I'm really impressed with what they say about the attrition rate among one group of culture travelers, the Peace Corps volunteers:

The figures are quite startling. The world-wide attrition rate exceeded 40 percent in seven of the years overall figure of 50 percent probably reflects the real situation. Given that the participants were volunteers, mostly young and imbued with a spirit of idealism, these data provide clear evidence that culture traveling was not meant to be easy. (p. 137)

And in their concluding chapter they observe:

...the consensus seems to be that in general terms the negative psychological consequences of culture travel outweigh the positive ones for most categories of travelers...(p. 245)

Hey, don't be a dead hero. Some people really do think they have to jump into those rapids right off the bat. Furnham and Bochner feel you are better off if you initially have a support group consisting of people of similar backgrounds to your own. They admit that such people can be a very poor source of information about the new culture. From my own observations, I would have to warn you that if you allow fellow expatriates (i.e. people like you) to pass on to you negative attitudes toward the society you are trying to enter, it may ruin your whole experience. So you need the support of fellow expatriates who have a positive attitude toward the “host culture”. At the same time, having the support of people from your own cultural background clearly reduces the initial stress. Just make sure they are people who love the host society and culture.

At the same time, Furnham and Bochner feel that it will be psychologically damaging to go on and on living in a foreign ghetto (i.e. a ghetto of people like yourself, which might be a physical ghetto, such as a foreigners' compound where you reside and work, or it may be a psychological ghetto, where you depend on foreigners for most of your social support). Personally, I would say that if your only two choices are either to live long term in a foreign ghetto, or else to jump right into the rapids without any support group, then go ahead and jump into the rapids, unless you have no desire to learn the language and become part of the culture. But then, why would you be reading this?

So the ideal, for the non-heroes among us, as well as other people who value their long term mental health, is to begin with a good support group of people who have positive feelings toward the host culture. Immediately, however, you start developing the communication skills and social skills you need to wean yourself from this support group. You develop your early skills in a protected, secure setting with the help of your mediating person cum LRP. Little by little, with the help and encouragement of your mediating person and your support group, you will move farther and farther out into the new culture. Eventually, you will develop a new support group consisting of members of the host society, and you will largely wean yourself from your old support group of fellow-foreigners.

But I warn you once more, if the “support group” you start out with turns out to consist of fellow foreigners who sit around and ridicule or run down the host culture, flee for your life. That sort of spirit will kill you dead in your tracks in terms of your cross-cultural effectiveness.

Once again, I'm emphasizing the ideal. Suppose you are learning Mexican Spanish. You might do well to live in a U.S. border town and recruit a bilingual LRP on the Mexican side. Of course, you'll be having a fair number of contacts with other Mexicans while going back and forth, but you're not yet attempting to be a full-blown participant in Mexican society. You are, however, building the skills you need to start branching out. Or to take another example, you are planning to learn a minority language in an Asian country. You can already speak the major national language, and participate in the general urban national culture. You are able to live in a town which borders the rural area where the language you wish to learn predominates. You may find an LRP who lives in town, or recruit one from a nearby rural village to come into town each day and help you develop the communication skills you need for branching out.

So what you have done so far is to learn a thousand or so basic vocabulary items. You have learned to construct a variety of basic sentences. You have developed some skills for coping with the communication situations you commonly face. You may have been at it for a month, or for two or three months. From the outset, you have been preparing yourself to live in the target language community. As time goes on, you need to think about preparing the community for you. Once people are used to you, and you have acquired some minimal communication skills and social skills, you will be ready to move into the community. One of the ways you will prepare the community for yourself, and help the people to feel comfortable and secure with you in their community is to begin systematically expanding your social network.

Again, your situation may deviate from the ideal. It may be necessary for you to jump right in, without a lot of opportunity to prepare either yourself or the community. At the other extreme, it may be difficult for you to spend time in the homeland of the language you wish to learn. Whatever the case may be, having an effective strategy for expanding your social network will be to your advantage.

3.1 Introduction to social networks
3.2 Your new social network at the outset
3.3 Enlarging and strengthening your network

3.1 Introduction to social networks

What's a social network you ask? The easiest way to understand this concept is for you to draw a diagram of your present social network. (See See Boissevain, 1974, or Milroy, 1987 for more details.) Begin by writing your name in the center of a blank piece of paper:

Now, think of all of the people you interrelate with on a regular basis, and place their names around the same page. (Your full network would include all the people with whom you associate at all, but that would be unmanageable for our present purpose.)

The lines indicate that you associate with each of these people. Now, if that's all there is to it, then it means that you associate with all of those people, but none of them associate with each other. Otherwise, in addition to the lines connecting you to them, there would be lines connecting them to each other. Such a network, in which you are connected to people who are not connected to each other, is referred to as a diffuse network. However, it is unlikely that your network is that diffuse. The next thing you need to do is to connect all the people who regularly associate with each other:

If you haven't guessed, the cluster of people at the top is your family. The lower left hand cluster is the people you work with, and the lower right hand cluster is some people you hang around with on the week-ends.

No doubt I've omitted a number of other clusters, like the people you go to church with. And I've omitted unclustered separate individuals, like people you do business with. A real network of a single individual (which is only part of a bigger network involving the whole society) might contain a thousand individuals. But you now have the idea of what a social network is. If your social network has lots of interconnections, like the one above, it is said to be dense as opposed to diffuse. The separate clusters are called--you guessed it--clusters.

We could make it more complicated by indicating on each connecting line the nature of the relationship, e.g., boss, mother, tennis partner, etc. And you might have several relationships with a single person. For example, your mother might be your boss, and she might also be your tennis partner. Then you have three relationships with her, and your relationship is said to be multiplex.

If your network is generally dense and multiplex, then it is considered close knit. Close knit networks are great. Everyone in them feels a strong sense of obligation to everyone else in them. After all, if you hurt Earl's feelings, you don't just risk your relationship with Earl. You also may affect the way Polly, Nina and Millie feel about you. So you're going to be decent to Earl.

3.2 Your new social network at the outset

Now so far, your social network in your new language community may look something like this:

Realistically, there may be more to it than that already, but let's keep things conceptually simple. Let's assume you only regularly associate with two people in the new language community at this point, not counting the various shopkeepers with whom you do business. I am happy to inform you that you already have more of a social network than you realize. That is because all that is shown in the diagram is your first order zone. Those are the people who you associate with. But you have a second order zone! Everyone that your LRP associates with is in your second order zone. So is everyone that your next door neighbor regularly associates with, and everyone that your shopkeepers regularly associate with. I'll just illustrate the case of your LRP. Again, we will limit ourselves to your LRP's most regular associates, rather than with the whole thousand associates she might actually have.

Look at all those people in the second order zone of your social network. Imagine what the third order zone must be like. For instance, it will include all the associates of your LRP's brother, and all of the associates of your LRP's best friend, even though you have yet to meet your LRP's brother, and your LRP's best friend. Nevertheless, their associates are in the third order zone of your social network. (I won't bother you with a diagram of your third order zone. But think how many people are out there in your fourth and fifth order zones. You already are connected to them by chains of people you have not yet met, apart from the very first people in the chains.)

3.3 Enlarging and strengthening your network

Your basic strategy for strengthening your social network is to move people from your second zone into your first order zone. You do that simply by establishing contact with them. And you do it in such a way that you become part of one or more clusters.

For example, suppose you were to become friends with your LRP's best friend: Presto! Your LRP's best friend is now in your first order zone, and you've just become part of a cluster. Now you should have some idea of how you are going to go on expanding your social network. You start from the links you have now, and you follow the links from those people to other people.

There is a good reason to proceed in this manner. Recall the sense of mutual obligation that exists within clusters. If you just go off and start relationships with a whole bunch of people that have no relationships with each other, then their sense of social obligation to you will be weak. But if you find out who the main people are that your LRP (or some other friend) relates to, and get her to introduce you to some of them, then you inherit a lot of the strength of their relationship with your LRP. If they aren't nice to you, their best friend (that is, your LRP) may find out, right?

It may seem selfish to try to force people into being socially obligated to you. But it's not--because you become obligated toward them at the same time. Remember the exchange theory? You enter into a system of rights and obligations which are shared by the members of the clusters you belong to.

Face it. You only have time for a finite number of relationships. While you are network building, you'll be devoting a lot of time to visiting. You can't visit everybody. So why not approach the task systematically? You visit your LRP's best friend. Perhaps your LRP introduces you, or perhaps you just show up and you say, “Hi. You know Noju. She's a good friend of mine.” (Noju is your LRP's name, in case you forgot.) Presto! A second order relationship just became a first order relationship in your social network. Your LRP's friend mentions that her own mother is in the hospital. Now you like to visit the sick. You could visit any old sick person. But can you see that it will strengthen your relationship with your LRP's friend if you visit your LRP's friend's mother? If you are important to your LRP's friend's mother, then you are all the more important to your LRP's friend. Try to become important to the people who are important to the other people who you are already becoming important to.

Given the fact that your LRP was a near ideal mediating person, it may be that she has less dense links to her own society (and more links to people outside of the society) than average. Thus, your first good cluster may be two or three steps removed from your original LRP. Eventually you would like to participate in clusters which are very deep in the society, where you are the only foreigner with whom the others in the cluster are linked. This is because people like your LRP may already have a fixed concept of “a foreigner” which is hard for you to overcome. The members of clusters which are deeply embedded in the society may have no fixed concept of the role of a foreigner, and thus it is more likely that they will simply include you as one of them. In that way you'll become a true participant in the society, rather than a hybrid person on the fringe.

This concept of network building is simple enough, but if you don't approach it systematically, you may well use up all your social time forming a very diffuse network of a whole bunch of people who have little or no significance to each other. Better to relate to the same number of people, but choose them strategically so that they form a dense network.

You can also work at making your network multiplex. That is, now that your LRP's best friend is your friend, you have the relationship of friend with that person. It may also happen that she is your neighbor, which means that you stand in two relationships to her, friend and neighbor. Suppose you learn that she belongs to a knitting club. You might join it. Now you have the third relationship of fellow-club member. The point is, besides building your relationships around people who relate to each other, try to relate to some of those people in a variety of capacities. To some extent this follows automatically from spending a lot of time with people.

If you end up belonging to two or three clusters, with a variety of types of relationships in each one, then you have a close-knit network, which means that you are a true insider in the community. You're a belonger. You're extra important to people because you're important to people who are important to them independently of you. Nobody's going to take you for granted. Even people that aren't in your first or second order zones will see that you're a belonger and will feel more of a sense of responsibility to accept you and protect you than they otherwise might. And they'll be more secure in their recognition that you accept them. I also think that you will find this approach to network building interesting and enjoyable. If you're not very outgoing, you'll probably find this to be a less traumatic approach to building relationships than certain alternatives such as just going out and knocking on doors and saying, “Hi. You don't know me, but can I be your friend?”

We often think of the stress of culture traveling only in terms of what we experience as the culture travelers. You also cause stresses to the community you enter. The metaphor of jumping into the rapids breaks down here, because it is not just hard on the jumper. It is also unkind to the rapids. While you are learning your early language skills and social skills under the shelter and protection of your mediating person, not only do you have a chance to prepare for the community. You also give the community a chance to become aware of you and start getting prepared for your presence.

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Go to SIL home page This page is an extract from the LinguaLinks Library, Version 3.5, published on CD-ROM by SIL International, 1999. [Ordering information.]

Page content last modified: 11 April 1999

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