Love Is Not A Universal Language: 5 things I’ve learned About Expat Dating The Hard Way

It’s the scene we all imagine when we move abroad… your eyes meet with a handsome stranger’s in a crowded cafe. You both try not to look at each other, but the connection is undeniable. Finally, you make the move and go over to his table. You smile nervously, realizing that you barely have any language in common, but you can just tell by his smile that the attraction is mutual. You take his hand and together you wander out of the cafe and into the twilight bathed streets of the city. Even though you’ve barely said a few words to each other, it already feels like you know each other on a deeper level. A level beyond language, beyond shared culture, beyond any conventional rules and regulations. You have no idea where you’re going this evening, no map, no plan, all you know is that you trust the immediate connection you have with this amazing stranger and–

OH MY GOD…YOU’RE STILL READING THIS!? Please. I was like you once upon a time. I believed in romance and chemistry that knew no nationality. I figured that dating abroad would be easy for me. I’m open-minded, friendly, gregarious, and not altogether horrific to look at. Sure, it would take a little bit of courage to put myself out there in the expat dating world… but once I ripped the band-aid off and just leapt into it, I was going to figure out how to date in a foreign country like a pro and get all sorts of new stamps on my Passport d’ Passion! Right!?

Ehhrrrm. Not so much. It turns out what we think is “universal” about love, romance and connection is actually a collection of learned behaviors and subtle societal expectations that are different everywhere you go. Sure, it’s easy to meet a hot stranger in a club and have a steamy vodka and Red Bull fueled hookup, but if you’re looking for something deeper than that, expat dating is a minefield. Don’t believe me? Read on! Here are five of the hardest lessons learned about how to date as an expat:

1. My Sense of Humor DOES NOT TRANSLATE 

Look, I’m a buffoon. I always have been. I’ve been getting guys to like me the same way since first grade when I would goof around sticking pencils up my nose to get Billy What’s His Name to notice me… I make them laugh. It’s always been so easy for me. Throw in a few self deprecating jokes, maybe a couple of witty puns bat my eyelashes, bam! Done! Date. Maybe I need to get some new schtick, but breaking the ice via humor just doesn’t seem to work around here. If I ever dared to stick a pencil up my nose in front of a Swiss guy, he’d probably give me an earnest lecture about how doing so is nicht so gut for my health.

Setting up a date with a Swiss guy feels about as perfunctory as scheduling a meeting with your boss. No flirting, joking or silliness allowed. When we actually meet in person sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised by somebody witty and affable. But more often than not, I end up feeling like I’m on an interview for a job that I would rather eat a bag of toenail clippings than actually do. I have sat through more mind numbingly boring first date conversations about jobs, hobbies and the dreaded favorite Swiss topic of Sport than I care to recall. Where’s the magic, where’s the silliness? When do they actually shed the all-business facade and open up about something real? And if I dare to shake things up by saying anything the least bit ironic, I’d better brace myself for crickets and tumbleweeds… because they do not know how to respond.

I know, I know, but the language barrier! Well, here’s the thing, out of all of my good friends here, very few of us share a first language in common. Yet we chat away animatedly with each other, get each other’s sense of humor and relate to each other on a deeper level. What’s the difference when it comes to dating?

2. Dating Looks Different Everywhere 

A while back I was psyched to start chatting with a Swiss cutie at a big open air festival. Great sense of humor, check! Awesome taste in music, check! Asked for my digits, check! I was psyched when he texted and asked if I wanted to go see another band the following week at this cool off the grid venue in Zürich. I figured he was keen to get to know me because he was super attentive via text. Imagine my surprise then when I showed up and he was surrounded by… his three best guy friends. Where I come from, you don’t introduce someone you’re dating to your best buddies unless you plan on keeping that person around for a while. To me it only meant one thing… I’d misread his signals and he’d actually asked me to tag along on a guy’s night out. Figuring he wasn’t interested, I then started to flirt with one of his buddies, who was also adorable. The buddy seemed awfully confused. Needless to say, after that night I never heard from my Swiss Cutie or his friend ever again!

I realized I’d actually been on this version of a date several times in my Swiss dating career. Meet a guy, maybe he’s into you but who can tell because as I said before, Germanic dudes are so stoic, show up to “hang out” and he’s brought along a friend. And maybe… just maybe if you’re really lucky, you won’t spend the rest of the night feeling like the world’s awkwardest fly on the wall while they chat animatedly in German you can barely understand.

So what gives? Well, it turns out that as in so many other cases, the Swiss really value integration. Dating is no different. It’s not uncommon for young people to hang out in groups for a while before coupling off, just to make sure the new squeeze fits in well with their circle of friends. It’s actually kind of nice that Swiss people care so much what their friends think of who they’re dating. For an outsider though it can be super intimidating. It’s hard enough trying to get to know somebody new without constantly having his friends around to try and impress too. Try doing that in a foreign language!

3. In Fact… Sometimes Dating Isn’t Really Dating 

So we’ve established that the Swiss are super casual about dating. But that doesn’t mean that getting serious looks the same for them either. When I first arrived in Switzerland I was spending a lot of time with this super nice Swiss guy. We hung out regularly, he insisted on paying for my meals, occasionally bought me some seriously thoughtful gifts and trinkets, we even planned a vacation together. Now I am a badass feminist chica and I do not expect a man to pay for me, ever. I’m perfectly happy to go Dutch for the entirety of the relationship if that’s what makes us both comfortable. However, where I’m from, a man does not spend money on you regularly like that unless he’s interested in you romantically. I thought we were taking things slow and getting to know each other, so imagine my disappointment when I found out he thought we were just friends.

What gives? Well, when it comes to friendship, Swiss people are extraordinarily generous. Instead of having a huge circle of casual friends that they kinda know, the Swiss prefer to have a handful of intimate relationships with people they treat like family. This means you hang out with these people regularly, care for each other deeply and yes, spend money on each other.

4. And Some People Are Still Embarrassed About Online Dating

These days finding a single person over the age of twenty who isn’t on at least one dating app feels about as easy as finding a unicorn. We all do it, so why be ashamed? I’ve found that in Switzerland, online dating carries a social stigma that it just doesn’t have back home.

From the date who ran into his co-workers with me at a bar and then proceeded to ignore me for the rest of the night, to the guy whose date conversation included complaining that there are too many, “black girls, foreigners and prostitutes”, on Tinder, to the dude who told me that if things worked out between us we’d have to make up a good story about how we met for his friends (What? Two nice people managing to find each other in the creepy cesspool of internet dating isn’t  a nice enough story?), the Swiss just aren’t as comfortable meeting people online as folks from back home are. Can you blame them? In a culture that values close-knit connections the way Swiss culture does, bringing a stranger into the midst must feel unseemly. The only problem is that as a foreigner, online dating really is my best way to meet people.

5. Cultural Compatibility is WAY More Important to Me Than I Thought It Was

I’ve always thought of myself as an open-minded person, so it pains me to say that after four years of living in Switzerland, I simply am not interested in dating somebody who does not have a significant amount of background from an English-speaking culture. So yes, this means that my ideal guy is either from or has spent a significant portion of his life living in a rather short list of countries. And yes, this rules out a lot of the men I meet, some of whom are actually pretty nice.  I’m not proud of it. In fact part of me thinks that if this is how I really feel, then maybe I don’t belong living in a foreign country?

I just can’t help that chatting with somebody who shares English speaking culture with me feels like home. I love not having to explain my jokes. I love feeling like I can respond to somebody spontaneously and they’ll get it and respond back. Banter, randomness, even debate, is a part of who I am. Love and dating just feel flat without it. I don’t know what the answers are, but I do know that I am not planning on packing in my adventures anytime soon, so I’m going to have to learn to roll with love abroad. If anybody has any suggestions I’ll gladly take them!

What about you? Is love chemical or cultural? Have you found success dating abroad? I’d love to hear your story, so pop me a comment! 


12 thoughts on “Love Is Not A Universal Language: 5 things I’ve learned About Expat Dating The Hard Way

  1. Muahaha…. This made me laugh so hard… And oh I feel your pain too! Particularly regarding lost-in-translation-humor … Can’t wait to read more of your blog! Delicious writing indeed 🙂

  2. What a fantastic post! Thank you for sharing your hard-won experience. I hope to never need your advice — but if my husband ever does leave me for a younger woman, I’ll at least know better than to flirt with a Swiss cutie’s friends, LOL.

  3. Oh this was quite a treat of a read. Long after I had ‘aged out’ for being attractive, interesting, or even noticed by American men…….Greek and Italian men still saw me as a vibrant and attractive woman. I’m laughing at myself as I write that it felt good and definitely added to the joy of the traveling.

    1. Ageism is another factor I never talked about! Southern Europeans are known for finding a mature woman who knows what she wants out of life as incredibly sexy and attractive. Also, I think women in those cultures still feel entitled to their sexuality as they age, unlike American women who are fed the message men will lose interest in them as soon as they no longer look and dress like teenagers. I’m not sure where Swiss men fall on this continuum or how this factors in to my dating experience. Maybe I need to move south and see how it goes?

      1. Oh you articulate this so well. And that entitlement in their sexuality spills over and is expressed in so many other dimensions in their lives. The attention to detail and ritual in their homes, faith, fashion, mannerisms, animated speech.
        You have really given me food for thought. Thank you.

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