September 25, 2014

Living with Strangers

Peter_kaufmanBy Peter Kaufman

 “You cannot know that you have a particular view of the world until you come in contact with differing views” (Inge Bell and Bernard McGrane, This Book is Not Required)

 For two weeks in July I was living with a family of complete strangers. They spoke a language I barely understood, lived in a town I had never heard of that was nearly 2,500 miles away from my home, and they had cultural norms and practices that were quite different from my own.  I was in Costa Rica for one month studying Spanish and as a way to augment my learning—both in terms of the language and the culture—I opted to do a homestay for part of my time there.

Homestay 1

 Photos courtesy of the author

Although my trip to Costa Rica was implicitly about acquiring a language, I actually ended up learning about much more than verb conjugations and vocabulary. Living with strangers can be many things: exciting, scary, fascinating, daunting, stimulating, and unnerving. It is also implicitly sociological. It’s impossible to be in a new situation, with new people, and new surroundings and not find yourself thinking sociologically—even if you do not identify as a “professional” sociologist like I do.

Probably the most obvious sociological lesson one may learn from living with strangers has to do with ethnocentrism. This term refers to the practice of judging another culture as inferior based on the values of your own culture.  Some typical examples of ethnocentrism are thinking that the foods in other cultures are disgusting, that the child-rearing practices are primitive, or that typical leisure activities are silly or boring. Other instances may revolve around personal hygiene (showering, teeth brushing, the use of deodorant) and the norms of interaction (shaking hands, hugging, personal space).

Even the most skilled anthropologist cannot easily shut out their own cultural lens as they view another society. The challenge is to not use this perspective to evaluate the other culture as either good or bad but instead, to try and embrace it as interesting and informative. This may be easier said than done because we are often unaware that we are being ethnocentric. Most of us have been so deeply socialized to accept our own cultural norms and values as real and true that we may fail to acknowledge the legitimacy of other ways of living. When we live with strangers, and especially when we are somewhat dependent on them, we are more likely to suspend our ethnocentric beliefs, see the world through a sociological perspective, and gain an appreciation for cultural diversity.

During my time in Costa Rica, I learned how attached I was to rather simple and mundane facets of my everyday life. From the foods I ate to the way pedestrians and drivers interact to the rhythm of family interactions, my daily routine there was a non-stop departure from my comfort zone. Undoubtedly, there were moments when I yearned for a slice of the familiar; however, for the most part I tried to use these new cultural experiences to gain the type of sociological wisdom that no textbook or classroom could ever teach me.


The family I lived with for two weeks was quite accustomed to living with strangers. They have been hosting students for ten years and I was the twentieth student they’d had in 2014 (it’s been a busy year for them). One night after dinner, I asked them to tell me the easiest and most difficult things about living with strangers. On the positive side, they talked about learning new things from people all over the world. They especially liked this for their two children. Whether it was insights from the guest’s country or even things the person did in Costa Rica that they never had the opportunity to experience, the appreciation they gained from this newfound knowledge was evident.

One of the frustrations they mentioned was when students from the United States said they were from “America.” If this strikes you as odd you should realize that the United States is just one of thirty-five countries located in the landmasses of North and South America. As expressed in the song “De América, Yo Soy” by Los Tigres del Norte (click here for the lyrics in Spanish and English), residents of any of these countries could rightly lay claim to being “American” but it is generally only people from the U.S. who appropriate this name. Although this is not exactly an example of ethnocentrism, it is based on a similar assumption that the United States is better and more important than other countries.


If you are interested in living with strangers you don’t necessarily have to study a foreign language. In fact, you don’t even need to leave your home. With the proliferation of internet sites such as airbnb and couchsurfing, it’s relatively easy to live with people from other cultures and countries. Whether you plan to do some traveling in the near future or just have an extra room (or couch) to spare, you can sign up with these websites and be hosted by or host people from around the world.

No matter how you do it, living with strangers and experiencing other cultures is a wonderful way to sharpen your sociological imagination. I always encourage students to study off campus if they have the means to do so and I was glad to be able to practice what I preach.  As the quote at the top of this post suggests, it is difficult for us to recognize our taken-for-granted reality until we meet people with different norms and values. Thanks to the generosity and hospitality of my host family and the other Costa Ricans I met during the month I was there, I had the great pleasure of learning this important sociological lesson.


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Me gustó mucho su comentario Peter. Es importante salir de nuestro propia "realidad" para conocer las realidades de los demás, traspasar primero nuestras fronteras mentales y así entender a otras culturas. Saludos desde Costa Rica.

Lisa Dancy
Living with strangers can be very awkward, especially when you don't know what to expect. Different personalities and attitudes.

I have no idea what the question is or where it may be but my comment about this article is when you live with a stranger the feeling you might get is uncomfortable. You do not know who they are or where they came from and have no idea if you like them or not.

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