10 Watercooler Conversation Tips for International Interns

by Danielle DeSimone

International internships are not just about the work (well, don’t slack off, they’re mostly about the work). Your international internship is also about learning to work in a multicultural environment with people from all different backgrounds. 

The best way to get to know your co-workers (and to make a good impression on your boss) is to learn the universal language of the office: watercooler talk. Of course, always keep in mind that what is appropriate to discuss in your office is entirely dependent on the cultural norms of the country where you are interning. However, the more you learn about the people and culture you are working with, the more meaningful your experience will be.

Human Rights Campaign flags
In many other cultures, discussing politics, even in the workplace is completely normal. Just be respectful.

1. Politics

What’s the one thing you should never talk about at family reunions? Politics. What’s one thing you can (usually) get away with discussing at your international internship? Politics. While you should always be respectful of your co-workers’ beliefs and the political climate of their country, talking politics is an excellent way to get a deeper understanding of the country in which you are interning.

You might find that in other cultures, discussing politics in the workspace or with family and even with perfect strangers is completely normal. Local and national politics could play a larger role in the day-to-day life of those you work with, and discussing how this affects them will give you insight into their lives, as well as give you the chance to share your own home country’s political views. After all, internships are a two-way street. You can contribute just as much to the discussion as they can! 

2. Food Recommendations

The way to an intern’s heart is through their stomach; from heaps of paella to sizzling Korean barbecue, food is an integral part of culture and one of the best ways to get to know your new home.

When you’re hanging with your coworkers by the coffee station, pick their brains on the best places to get food in the city! You obviously want to nom on the most authentic food around, and what better way to befriend your co-workers than to have them show you where it is? 

3. The Work Your Office Does

It may seem obvious, but when shooting the breeze, an excellent conversation topic is the work that you and your office is doing. Whether you’re working in the fashion scene in Milan, learning about economics in London, or assisting with environmental conservation work in Ecuador, you should want to discuss the work you’re contributing to.

It also doesn’t hurt to show your coworkers how passionate you are about your work! If the rest of your office sees how seriously you take your internship, your boss will be more likely to give you a solid recommendation letter and maybe even help you network when searching for a job a few months down the road.

Cafe on a street corner
Your coworkers are better than Yelp! when it comes to finding the best local grub; tap into that network!

4. Personal Questions (but not too personal) 

There’s always a fine line you shouldn’t cross when discussing your personal life in the office. News about your brother visiting you from home? Great! That super awkward blind date you went on with a stranger from a dating app? Maaaayyyybbbe not. However, it’s ok to make friends with your coworkers!

After all, your coworkers are humans too, and getting to know them by chatting or even practicing the local language with them will allow you to connect on a personal level. This makes for much better working relationships in the office and outside! Once you’ve become friendly at your desks, don’t be afraid to invite your coworkers out to after-hour tapas to keep that bonding going! #FriendshipGoals

5. Cultural Differences

You’re interning in another country for a reason; not just for your chosen field of work, but also to experience another culture. Culture shock is a very real thing that affects most travelers, due largely in part to the differences between home and the new country you are in.

By discussing the diverse cultural and societal norms of the two countries, your coworkers will teach you about their country, but even more interestingly, they’ll teach you about your own. Living in another culture forces you to reevaluate your own lifestyle back home by seeing how other people live.

Don’t miss your chance to do some soul-searching around the watercooler with your coworkers!

6. Local Tips 

Not sure how the bus system works? Still not sure where all the best museums are? Wish you had some insight on the local tango scene? Don’t be afraid to ask your coworkers and bosses for advice on making the most of your time in your new country. They’re the ones who know where that secret jazz club is! 

Young woman during an interview
Ask how you’re doing so far in your role or even consider asking for an informal performance review.

7. How Am I Doing?

You are, first and foremost, at your internship to work and to learn. You want more than just a resume bullet point; you want to do a good job, leave a lasting impression, and gain skills that will help you in your future goals. How do you make sure to check off this list?

Even if your office provides you with progress reports or a final review, it’s always a good idea to check in throughout your time there to see how you’re doing. Openly ask your superiors, your boss, or even your fellow coworkers how they would assess your performance so far, and advise you on what you could do to improve. Constructive criticism is always a good thing! You can only improve from it.

8. Religion

So if politics were off the table at family reunions, religion definitely was too. Again, it’s important to take into consideration the cultural norms of your chosen host country, and whether or not faith is something often discussed, but in many places around the world, religion is a very popular conversation topic. 

As in all discussions with other people, especially those with different backgrounds and beliefs from yourself, you should always approach the subject with the utmost respect. However, religion has been around for millennia, shaping the course of history. It is a huge aspect of a nation’s culture, and you can learn a great deal about another country by exploring how they approach religion.

Understand that not all of your coworkers will feel comfortable being asked about their faith, but don’t be afraid to discuss the subject!

9. Family Traditions

Traditions passed down through a family’s generations carry on the customs of a culture’s past. When you’re trading stories over a shared lunch with coworkers, ask them what their family does for birthdays, holidays, or anniversaries!

You can learn a lot about Chinese culture once you dig deeper into the customs of red envelopes or eating fish for dinner during the Chinese New Year. Even better than just talking about these celebrations, ask to participate; there’s no better way to learn about these important cultural traditions than to participate in them!

Woman together at a computer
Use this opportunity to tap into some serious wisdom and as for career advice.

10. Career Advice & Your Future 

So you’ve reached the end of an incredible, life-affirming internship in another country, spending months learning both in the office and outside of it. Now you’ve got to start packing up your souvenirs, eating your final plates of feijoada, and saying your goodbyes.

On your last days in the office, take advantage of the time you have left with your boss and your co-workers to talk about the future, where you see yourself after your internship, your dreams and career goals, and how your coworkers can help you achieve them. Ask them for guidance on where you should go from here and how to continue to work in your field of choice.

Quick, don’t forget! Be sure to ask your boss for a formal recommendation letter, outlining all the work that you’ve accomplished. They will hopefully be more than happy to assist you in snagging future jobs, more internships, or entry into graduate school.

Regardless of the conversations that you have in your office, it’s important to always keep your host country’s culture in mind, so as to not commit any faux pas. Just always be respectful and curious; your natural interest in your work and the country you are living in will shine through, and your coworkers will be enthusiastic to share their culture with you. You’ll never learn about another country without talking to those who live there, so embrace the break room during your internship abroad and get chatting! You won’t regret it.