2 Things You Need to Form a Strong Friendship

“To have a friend and be a friend is what makes life worthwhile.” ~Unknown

Extreme Makeover: Friendship Edition! That would be the best phrase to describe a year in the life of a cross-cultural friendship with my best friend Marisa.

This is the first deep and meaningful relationship I’ve ever had with someone who doesn’t speak a word in my own language.

My relationship with her has exposed and challenged many of my cultural beliefs and ideas about friendship.

There is nothing wrong with being influenced by culture. We all are.

But it's good to recognize where some of our beliefs come from. Every so often we need to do little sorting through and, if need be, have a “garage sale” to get rid of things that are not relevant to our lives.

From the day that we are born, our culture begins teaching us lessons. It shapes our social behavior, conduct, and whole value system.

Oftentimes, it's not until we encounter another culture that we realize how our culture and upbringing shaped our value system.

Before my relationship with Marisa, I had many North American values that shaped my beliefs about friendship. For example, I believed that we needed massive amounts of time together. I also believed that we needed things in common or the relationship won't work at all.

And yes, it is true that you do need these things, but it wasn't to the degree that I had been brought up to believe.

You see, I've had relationships with people in my own language where we've had space, time together, and similar backgrounds.

But in the short time that I've known Marisa, our relationship has grown faster and gone further than some of these other relationships that have had the benefits of time and space. So what is the catch?

The catch is that it's not about how much time Marisa and I have together, but rather what we do when we have a moment together. It's not about how full the cup is, but rather what's in the cup—the quality and the content.

Relationships experts say that one of the secrets to keeping a relationship healthy is engagement.

The act of engaging with each other briefly online keeps our minds happy and continually feeling connected.

What makes a successful friendship is not how much time we have together but what we do when we are together. We may only have 20 minutes on MSN messenger but in those 20 minutes, but we make that time count. So yes, lots of time together is good. But time well spent together is even better!

What also makes our relationship stronger is that we know the difference between hearing and listening.

During the course of my relationship with this woman who doesn't speak a word of English (I also speak Spanish) I witnessed a phenomenon. I thought initially that my relationship would be harder because she spoke a different language.

But it turns out that she actually understands me better than some of my friends who speak my native language. For the longest time I couldn't figure out how this could be, until one day it hit me.

You see, Marisa and I have to listen to each other extra hard because of our language barrier. Because of that, she listens closely to every word I say and I think it is the reason she “gets” me.

There are times that I have literally seen her tip her head towards me in an attempt to catch every single word that is coming from my mouth.

And on my part, I’ve done things like reread past MSN conversations between us just to make sure that I understand her right. And the both of us often make it a point while chatting to every so often stop and say “Do you understand what I am saying?”

We’ll also repeat back to each other what we think we are trying to tell each other.

It costs us nothing to develop these habits, but taking the time to create them has protected us from things that could cost our friendship dearly.

Because of this language barrier, we listen extra hard, and as a result, 90 percent of the time, we really understand each other.

I realize now that it’s easy to think that you understand someone because you share the same language and culture. But it may turn out that you are only hearing each other's words and not really tuning into what they are trying to say.

What I’ve learned is that a relationship works well when you focus not so much on the time spent together but on what you do with that time—and when you focus not just hearing but really fully listening.

So here we are: two different ladies from two cultures who don’t share the same language, have no common interests, and barely any time together. Yet this is probably one of the most functional relationships I have ever been in.

In our relationship there is more room for fights and misunderstandings. By our society’s standards, our relationship should be impossible, but we have yet to have one offense between us.

The greatest lesson that this relationship has taught me is that there is one thing cultural and language barriers cannot hinder—love.

Photo by Lirica Aragao.

About Angelina Khoo

In 2009, Angelina relocated to Buenos Aires to teach English while learning to dance the tango and speak Spanish. Her time there has given her insight into cross-cultural relationships & living abroad. Visit her at Making the Same Difference or purchase her eBook, Argentine Eyes, a novel based on her recent experiences.

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  • I’m so happy for you in that you are learning another language.
    I get overwhelmed by the fact that I cannot communicate to some people due to the language barrier.

    This inspired me to want to learn other languages to expand possibilities.

    I also recently learned that similar interests is just an added bonus.
    If you don’t have a good vibe with one another, the interests won’t matter.

    Thanks for the article.

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  • Learning another language is one of the most eye opening things that you can possibly do! It wasn’t always easy but it is so worth it. I’m gonna give you a tip if you want to learn another language. I am both a spanish student and teach ESL so I know a few secrets. And the first step is to find really good language resources. There is alot of junk out there that claims to teach you another language.
    Some of my favorite resources are barrons languages and a company in New Zealand called Rocket Languages. I don’t know what language you would be interested in but please feel free to contact me on this subject because half the battle is finding good programs and good teachers. And I would love to guide you there……

  • and you are very right about similar interests only being an added bonus. You can have all the common grounds in the world but to keep a relationship long term it takes so much more than that….

  • Angelina, I think you make some really powerful distinctions in this post. There are differences between quantity and quality and between hearing and listening.

    I really love this post, because something that most would view as a roadblock to clear communication, has actually enhanced the relationship, and illustrated some really simple and applicable tips.

    I try to practice “being there” whenever I converse, but it’s so easy to get caught up in only focusing in on what you want to say. But when you really listen, you open yourself up to a whole new perspective, a path for growth, and certainly in this case, the culture of an entirely differently language.

    Thanks for sharing this Angelina. Really enjoyed reading it.


  • Very cool post. I totally agree about the “garage sale” concept – removing the things in your life that don’t fit anymore and moving on. Once you free up that “space” you have room for all of the right things in your life. Neat concept on friendship – I don’t have any friends who speak a different native language but I have witnessed the phenomenon of friends that I don’t see very often that seem to “get” me more than friends I see all the time.

  • David Mercer

    I once had two roomates who spoke only spanish and i english and french. Communication was almost 100% body language. The level of communication and caring was AMAZING. we literaly had to watch each other very closely, and provided some of the best emotional support to each other in times of crisis and heartbreak I’ve experienced. Plus you really paid attention to schedules, and roger always knew when to make extra tacos when i was home from working the night shift. All without a word.

  • That is awesome that you enjoy the post! These principles are something my friend and I have to live out every single day of our lives all over again. It’s not something you master and then thats it, it’s done and over with. Everyday we get up and try all over again. I write alot on Cross Cultural relationships on my “Making the Same Difference” blogsite and I feature my friend alot and the things I’ve learned from her. This post you see there is an exclusive I wrote for Tiny Buddha If you liked this, there is more on my blogsite. As well I wrote a blogseries specifically on having a relationship with someone in another culture. It’s at

    Open your heart to new cultures and experiences and you will never be the same! All the best on your journey!

  • Having a cross cultural relationship has been WILD! Yes, body language matters so much and you learn to read people beyond verbal communication. Between my friend and I, talking on the phone is the most difficult task because I cannot see her body language and I cannot read her words like I do when I do chat. But you are so right about emotional support and understanding. It´s strange because she doesn’t speak a word in english but she understands my needs better than alot of people from my culture and background. When two people really want to make it work with all their hearts, it will happen. And yes, extra tacos are definitely a great perk! LOL

  • I’ve had that too, it’s funny that I’ve lived with people and spent extended time with them and yet one day I find out they don’t get me as much as you would expect. Then I have had people who I haven’t seen in years and they somehow get me without having lived with me or spent extended time. I agree, it’s quite a phenomenon!

  • Angelina ~ Thank for this inspiring story of friendship! That’s so special to have that deep connection, to have truly meaningful conversations together and to know you are understood, with both equally sharing from the heart and listening to each other. Beautiful :~D

  • Awee…….thanks for your lovely comment. It means so much to me and I will tell you why, because there are some challenges we do go through coming from different cultures and it took us a long time to get where we are. So it’s just beautiful that so many people support us and are touched by our story of an intercultural friendship. It is through this relationship that I began to realize that if two people really want something with all their hearts, nothing can stop them. I wish you rich and fulfilling relationships in your life too!

  • Angela Gunn

    Wonderful post!

  • A wonderful post about something beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

  • Penman21

    It is a great wisdom in her heart.

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  • Beautiful message. I believe if we all learned to listen better we’d all be in a better place. There would be less rage, more tolerance towards differences. When we feel understood, or as you say, “she gets me”, some of the brick walls come tumbling down, our defenses get lowered, we become more vulnerable and therefore more open towards the other.
    Listening classes should be mandatory as part of our education. This would benefit Humankind.
    As you say, truly listening is not just about hearing words. It is sooo much more. It’s about tuning into the whole person – facial expressions, tone, body language. This brings to mind my clowning trip to Sicily -
    I didn’t know a word of Italian. That was not necessary and certainly not a requirement. Laughter, smiles, tears is the universal language. We ‘clowns’ connected on a most basic core human level with the patients in the hospitals, the children in the ophanages, and many other groups in other settings. There’s something that cuts across the cultural divide, and that’s the unspoken words of the language of the heart.
    Thank you for linking to my “Listening” guest post on Tiny Buddha ( )

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  • Thank you for your beautiful comments. The most humbling part is that learning to listen is not something we ever become “pro” at. It is something that we have to get up and do all over again every day a new. She and I are always in the process of learning and always will be 🙂

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