The opportunity to study abroad this summer in Grenoble, France was a phenomenal experience that had a profound impact on me. Articulating (as best I can) the origin and subsequent impact of this perspective-shift was important to me so that I would not forget all the things that I learned, could appropriately acknowledge what I experienced, and hopefully convince (or at least reassure) people who are either already abroad or considering travelling abroad that it is 110% worth it.

Like the title of this blog indicates, being in France helped me learn so much about myself precisely because I was out of my comfort zone; for this reason—and this is my opinion—growing and learning about yourself is a function of your willingness to get comfortable being uncomfortable. I want to clarify something before I continue—the way one “gets comfortable being uncomfortable” requires objectively evaluating one’s behaviors or beliefs in uncomfortable situations; observing yourself through a non-judgmental lens is what enables you to continuously discover new insight about yourself in situations where you are uncomfortable.

What led me to believe this? It was the combination of three things: being uncomfortable, acknowledging (without judging) my discomfort, and deconstructing or questioning my discomfort.

Being in France was certainly a challenge, particularly in the first few weeks. There was a group of students from UM participating in this program, which certainly made the transition easier. When I arrived, our classes started immediately, so I was juggling coursework, a new social scene, a new diet, a new schedule, a language barrier, a new family (I was staying with an incredible host family), and a new way of life. Getting accustom to all of this was not easy and in fact it was frequently exhausting, frustrating, and demoralizing, but it was also simultaneously incredibly confidence-boosting, personally revelatory, and amazing.

So, yes, there were many situations that were uncomfortable, which meant that there was a wealth of opportunities to acknowledge this discomfort, deconstruct it, and learn from it. By far the most uncomfortable situations resulted from the language barrier. I won’t go into them all (because that would be both embarrassing and unnecessary), but I’ll do my best to explain what I learned in the process of reflecting on my behaviors and what I learned from these situations.

When I had trouble communicating basic expressions or was limited to few words to describe my feelings (i.e. incredible, fantastic, good, bad, etc.) I noticed that I would oscillate between the three following reactions: judge myself harshly for not being able to articulate what I wanted to say, revert to saying a simpler phrase just to say something (that often wasn’t how I felt), or stay silent by acting as though I had not understood. Why was this so difficult? Why couldn’t I just do my best to communicate and be proud of myself for doing my best? 

Rather than being consumed by these feelings of discomfort, I opted to problem-solve instead (by asking myself a lot of questions). Did my frustration stem from the difficulty I experienced when speaking or was it the fact that I was opting to speak less? Interestingly, this self-questioning process helped me realize that it was the former. My discomfort was rooted in frustration about not being able to express myself as clearly as I could in English, but not necessarily about speaking less. This realization was fascinating and rather comical since the main reason why I had chosen to study abroad in France was precisely to practice my French whenever I could, fully embracing that I was not a native speaker, which meant that expressing myself in French would be more difficult. Acknowledging this (and laughing about it) was key because it helped me move forward and embrace the discomfort (because I was going to be in many more situations were language was an obstacle). I could feel that my mental state had shifted substantially after accepting this and I was already starting to problem-solve. There was a clarity and a calmness that helped me strategize how to practice my French and have fun doing it. The options that I came up with included: continue to try and talk as much as possible, listen more, or ask for advice regarding the ratio of trying to speak/just listen. I consulted my host parents and decided to listen more. This choice made all the difference and fascinating insight emerged from doing so.

Listening afforded me a new lens through which I could learn about the language and French culture; in this way, I observed certain subtleties that I had never appreciated before. For example, choosing to mostly listen fostered new and interesting conversations (since I would just continue to ask questions), observe social cues, notice subtleties in different French dialects, empathize with other non-native speakers, learn new words or phrases and see the contexts in which they were used, and appreciate “le rythme de la langue francaise.” It was very humbling to realize that communicating your thoughts clearly and in the way that you mean to is actually very difficult and is something we take for granted when speaking our native languages. For starters, translating directly from how you might say it in English to French will—in the most cases—come off slightly strange and—in the worst case—be intelligible, nonsensical, or possibly offensive. After having studied French intensively for years, I felt that I had a relatively good grasp on ways to communicate that would not immediately indicate my non-native-French-speakerness; however, even if a person is confident about their ability to express themselves, a native English speaker will most likely communicate in French how they would in English, which will indicate their non-native status quickly. I thought this was fascinating and my host parents explained that each language has its own rhythm or “music” as they would say, which is why a person’s nationality can be oftentimes identified even if they are a proficient speaker. The term in French for the rhythm of different languages is called “le rythme de la langue” and is something that I truly had never grasped, nor would I have been able to understand had I not had the chance to listen to countless conversations between native French speakers while I was in France. Choosing to listen made all of the difference, and for me, proved to be most beneficial to way to improve my French (and see how much more I still can learn!).

Listening was key, and particularly because it made me seek out as many conversations that I could and ask questions. My host family was phenomenal and most of the conversations that I deeply enjoyed and learned so much from were with them over dinner (thank you Tomas and Carminda!). I was so content listening while they talked—I talked too, but it was nice to hear them describe their personal and professional journeys, their family, their values, France, gardening, beekeeping (yes, there are real pros), and their life in Grenoble. These conversations and the relationship that I developed with them as a result will be something  I will remember the most, hands down. They are a huge reason that my experience in France was such a positive and transformative one. I would happily explain more, but each of us is different and should take an approach that feels right to him or her when it comes to how to act in new or uncomfortable situations (my advice is to listen to your intuition). The huge takeaway for me though was that talking less and listening more was incredible for me; it helped me connect and engage with the people that I met and learn that I really enjoyed taking this approach (and have continued to do so even after I returned to the U.S. and was back to speaking in English).

To summarize, seek out opportunities where you are uncomfortable (which will be common while abroad) and ask yourself why you are uncomfortable, so that you decide how to move forward. Next, enjoy all that will inevitably come from whatever decision you make. You’ll see yourself and your surroundings in a new light which—I can promise—will be illuminating.