Establishing Rules and Boundaries
In the previous part of this guide, we went through some things you shouldn’t do, I gave you advice on how to turn bad behaviors into behaviors that would make people want to be around you, but I didn’t tell you what you were actually doing as opposed to not doing. Well, in short, when you don’t do creepy or inconsiderate things, you’re respecting social boundaries, and most likely, by extension, your partner’s personal boundaries as well (as long as they’re emotionally healthy, that is), but more importantly, by treating other people in a certain way, it is implicitly expected of them to treat you in the same way, so even if unknowingly, you’re setting your own boundaries.
Because boundaries work both ways, if you respect your partner’s boundaries then it is only natural that they should respect yours too. But what if yours are so shakily defined that you can’t make the most out of your language exchanges? This part of the series is all about setting strong boundaries so you can reap the rewards of doing language exchange the right way to prevent anybody from taking advantage of you or making you waste your time.
As I already pointed out, a general rule of thumb is that you should expect to receive the same that you give, if this condition is not met, then you and your partner are probably not compatible. I’ve had people that for some reason equate “language exchange” with “oh yeah I don’t mind helping you with your Spanish without having you help me with the language I’m learning in return, no problem, I have nothing better to do”, when this happens I just cut it right then and there, what happens during the first exchange will set the stage for what will happen during every following exchange.
For example, I almost never go out of my way time-wise when doing language exchanges (because that would send the wrong message), but I do go out of my way to help with grammar, accent, and just about any issues I can help with, which is, by itself, much more than what 99% of people do, so that’s enough. In return, I expect the other person to go out of their way to help me, not time-wise either, but in any way they can help me improve my target language, as that’s what I’m doing for them.
Let’s go over a bullet point list for what I consider to be the basic rules of language exchange:
- An equal period of time for both languages: it’s not unlikely that either party will not respect this rule, this is one of the reasons why people ditch language exchange altogether and hire a teacher instead. Even if you follow every single piece of advice in this guide to the T, you’ll still run into people who only want to talk to you in their target language (your native language) all. of. the. time. However, this also happens with people who are not necessarily unappreciative of other people’s time this is why you need to establish a rule regarding how long the exchange will be and how you will split up that time as soon as you and your potential language exchange friend agree to meet, if you don’t, people will take your silence as license to talk in their target language non-stop. I like the first exchange to be all about my language partner, we can talk about whatever they want, they can ask me anything, and more importantly, they can speak their target language during the entire exchange. Most people try to cut one session in half so that both people get practice time during the same exchange, but I find this unpractical as time will never be equally divided in half, it’s easier to keep track of time if time is measured in sessions and not in minutes, i.e., one session for you, one for me, as opposed to 30 minutes for you, and 30 for me (during the same exchange). Another advantage of this is that you won’t clip anybody’s wings as nobody will be interrupted in the middle of making a point, or what is worse, in the middle of ingraining knowledge. Furthermore, by allowing your partner to practice their target language during the entire exchange, they owe you, and they know it. This is what I tell them after exchanging pleasantries:
“All right, Jane, how about this, we make today’s exchange all about you? You can speak in your target language the entire time and I’ll try my best to correct you, and next time it’ll be all about me, does that sound good to you? I find that splitting sessions in half is unpractical and makes what you’ve learned so far during the session harder to ingrain if you suddenly break out of the learning process and switch to your native language, but let me know what you prefer.” After your first session together is over, immediately make plans for a second one, simply ask “so, Jane, when are you free this week so you can help me with my [insert your target language here]”, if both of you agree on a time, but later your exchange partner suddenly disappears or is always “busy”, you will know it’s over. This might sound risky, because you just spent an hour of your time without getting anything out of it, but trust me, it’s far worse when you do a half hour split and you think that everything’s fine, and you believe the “I’m kinda busy with some secret thing that I might just be making up right now… or not”-s because, after all, they didn’t run away from letting you speak in your target language for half an hour. If a person goes MIA after you gave them an entire hour of your time, not only is that person not a good language exchanger, they are not worth a second of your time, and you will know it very quickly. If you are good with people, and it’s easier for you to read between the lines, then you can go ahead and try a split session the first time you meet with your potential language friends, but if it’s hard for you to get around people’s ambiguities, then I suggest you stick with the entire session for your language partner. (Don’t worry, I’ll show you later how to filter potential language friends based on their profiles so that your chances of wasting your time are substantially lowered). If you decide to split the sessions, you should tell your partner that you’ll be tracking the time and that you will let them know when it’s time to switch languages, it’ll be awkward at first, you’ve been warned.
This is a real life example of a person who, after I helped her with her Spanish for an hour, was always busy:
I met this girl on HelloTalk. We quickly agreed on a time to meet, she seemed very eager to exchange languages.
I suggested to her that our first exchange should be us speaking entirely in Spanish, she agreed.
She was ambiguous about a date for our next exchange (which was her turn to help me with my Japanese). I don’t like ambiguity but I gave her the benefit of the doubt, plus I needed somebody who would leave me ‘hanging out to dry’ so I could show you what it looks like and thus help you not waste your time.
I knew this was over when she said she was taking her finals. When people talk in ambiguous terms regarding dates (a word which, by definition, is specific), it’s because they don’t want to see you. In this case, she didn’t care about exchanging languages with me again. Compare “I’m taking my finals” with “I’m taking my finals, we can meet a week from today, unfortunately, I can’t any time sooner”.
Ambiguous and uncommitted language is the way people who don’t like being upfront about things communicate, I don’t know exactly what they are thinking nor do I know their reasons (which are probably completely valid and understandable) but I do know what they imply: “Please stop talking to me”.
I could have said “oh well, have a nice life”, but I intentionally forced the conversation to the point where she stopped replying (and eventually deleted me from her Skype contacts list).
Notice how I’m, however, not pushy at all, she told me she was taking her finals and I only talked to her again 20 days afterwards and with the excuse that Skype sent me a notification letting me know it was her birthday and that I wanted to wish her a happy birthday, then casually asked her when she was free, to which she responded “Sure, I’m working today”, again, ambiguity.
Talking to her after she told me she was busy with exams wasn’t because I thought that, from the goodness of her heart, she would realize how nice it was of me to help her with her Spanish for an hour and that she should do the same for me, but because I wanted to document how it looks like when language exchange doesn’t go the way we expect it to.
I want to point out that I do believe her when she said she was busy with exams, and again when she said she was busy at work, but the fact of the matter is, whatever the reason, months went by and she was never free, or at least, never had the time to have an exchange with me, and that’s all that matters to me.
Basically, figuring out that we were not going to become best-language-exchange-friends-forever only took two days. I know people who still talk to language exchange partners they exchanged languages with for the first time (and last) months ago, because “who knows”, I do: it’s only a waste of time.
- Feedback: Be clear about what you want your language friend to do for you.
Focus on your biggest hurdle, don’t ask to be corrected about every thing you do wrong, unless you’re an advanced student and make few mistakes in general. Most people will get tired rather quickly about correcting your pronunciation, grammar, slang usage, squat form… you see where I’m getting at. Focus on the one thing that will pay you the highest returns, and ask your partner to ruthlessly correct you every time you make a mistake. Take the time to ask your partner what they need help with and if they’d like you to correct every mistake they make, suggest to them they focus on one thing only. Keep in mind that your language exchange friends are not being paid and that they are, probably, not trained teachers, so don’t expect them to explain every little nuance in the language. I cover this in greater detail here.
- Punctuality: Most people are just unpunctual. The odds that your language buddies will be punctual are, statistically, very small.
The problem is that since you don’t know them and that meeting over the internet to exchange languages is a rather impersonal commitment, if your partner hasn’t shown up at the appointed time, it may be either that they are just unpunctual or are not going to show up at all. You don’t know, so instead of waiting for somebody who may not show up at all, give each other a time limit for showing up. This is what I say after agreeing on a date and time: “Please don’t be late, I know that problems come up unannounced and that you may not be able to let me know that you won’t be able to meet with me, so if you haven’t signed into Skype by xx:yy, I’ll assume you ran into a last minute affair and won’t be able to meet up”. Don’t be afraid to say exactly this or something similar, you are not being confrontational, you are just being straightforward in a very respectful way, no emotionally healthy person will take this the wrong way. If they don’t show up and don’t say anything afterwards, I don’t ask them what happened (though you can if you want, but it won’t get you anywhere), simply because it’s quite clear they don’t like me or are not serious about learning their target language, even shy people show up, so when somebody doesn’t, it’s one or both of the aforementioned reasons, and it doesn’t matter which one because the result is the same.
These boundaries are non-negotiable for me, and I believe they should be for you as well. You may add other boundaries depending on what you are looking for and what you are willing to put up with. For example, if I were a girl, I’d say a have a boyfriend even if I didn’t, however, some girls will actually use the fact of being a girl as an advantage to get language exchange partners quicker.
As I said, these boundaries are non-negotiable, but there are occasions when I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt one time, maybe they really forgot they had something else to do and they just happened to remember after their half-time of speaking practice was over, unlikely, but it could be, some people are very socially awkward in that they do not know how to express themselves well and just abandon conversations for, apparently, no reason when there really is a valid non-I’m-taking-advantage-of-you-in-case-you-hadn’t-noticed-yet reason. Whenever something like this happens, I expect them to reinitiate contact, I do not talk to them first because that sends the wrong message. If you contact them first when it was them who were at fault, it makes them think you are willing to put up with their bad manners, don’t do this, there are plenty of fish in the sea.
If you decide to give the benefit of the doubt, make sure you don’t get sucked into a spiral of exploitation by the other party.
Previously, I also pointed out that I almost never go out of my way time-wise, however, if my language friend is somebody I’ve been talking to for a while and they ask for my help for an upcoming language exam, job interview, or anything important, I’ll find the time to do extra practice time with them and help them out. This is certainly not a rule or something you must do, I do it because it doesn’t bother me to help out somebody who, I know, is not trying to take advantage of me (because I’ve known them long enough) and has an important reason for asking for my help and see it as a favor from me to them, not as an obligation.
If your language friends ask you for favors like these, just ask yourself “would it bother/annoy me to do this?” if the answer is yes, then just don’t do it. Again, just make sure you aren’t coming off as somebody who other people can take advantage of.
Lastly, if you feel that you and your partner don’t click, don’t be afraid to look for new people and move on.