Socialization, the process by which people gain knowledge of society through education, interactions and training, was intuitive when we were children. We watched our parents and siblings navigate the world and tried to emulate them. Sometimes, when we had not quite grasped the concept, we were redirected with a critical word or given a demonstration to help us on our way to a greater understanding of society. The process of socialization does not end when we progress to adolescence; rather it is a constant mechanism of evolution and adaptation to new surroundings, cultures and expectations. However while socialization is ongoing, at some point the guiding hand disappears, leaving us to navigate with our own devices.
One such experience for hundreds of young people every semester is the Sciences Po exchange program. Students come from nearly every continent to form a mélange of languages, cultures and customs. For their many differences, they share a common pursuit of knowledge and the challenge of navigating a new city and culture. The process of socialization while abroad consists of attempting to fit in based on previous knowledge or conceptions about the culture, and from observations made while immersed in it. Previous knowledge can range from stereotypes, to media portrayals, to word of mouth experiences. However, once a student is immersed in the culture they are presented with the task of reconciling these notions with realities. For example, Google « French stereotypes » and the first image result is a mustachioed man clad in stripes and a beret, smoking a cigarette and holding a baguette. Such hyperbolic, artificial ideas about culture are no help for students trying to fit in, and thus, substantial questions of what it means to mirror French culture and society remain. While finding answers may be easier for some exchange students than others, particularly those with previous exposure to French language and culture, every exchange student faces at least some unfamiliar nuances associated with immersion in a somewhat unknown atmosphere.
However, even for students with substantial French skills, it can still be dauntingly difficult to meet and become friends with « locals ». Whether this difficulty stems from lack of opportunities to meet and get to know French people, or just a general lack of knowledge about where to have such an encounter, exchange students may find themselves frustrated with the ease of remaining isolated within the international exchange community. One complex barrier seems to be that of « already established friend groups; » that is that French students already have social circles where they belong comfortably, and thus are not as strongly prompted to form new friendships. In fact, it seems likely that this is one of the most pervasive issues exchange students face, as it is certainly daunting to approach a group of « insiders » as a random stranger (and one who does not fluently speak the language at that). Activities such as « Language Cafés », gatherings orchestrated by one of Sciences Po’s student groups known as Melting Potes where students can gather to speak with each other in languages of their choosing, is a potentially good forum to break the mold. But even in a setting with a higher degree of acceptance for non-native language speakers, there is still an element of strain and awkwardness involved; it is possible that « Café » participants will not « click » and will subsequently struggle to keep conversation afloat, or will be held back by introversion. Additionally, there are differences in social norms, such as acceptable topics of discussion with a new acquaintance. For example, in France it seems that discussing politics and other sensitive issues is commonplace, while in the United States sex, religion and politics are considered « off the table » in a new environment.
However for many, even lack of a common spoken language or conversational norms can be overcome in the right context. At night in Paris’ many clubs, nonverbal communication replaces words to form a widely understood method of expression. Nervousness over language mistakes and timid reserve give way to a shared, authentic experience of dancing and immersion in the music (and for many, steadily flowing alcohol helps to lessen the discomfort of starting conversation with a stranger). While the acts of dancing and partying themselves may not contribute to a high level of socialization between natives and non-locals, the after dark scene creates the atmosphere for such interactions to take place; people can bond over their love of music at the bar or in the smoking areas to form fast friendships. The commonality serves to spark an affinity, and can even lead to future plans and lasting connections. Sciences Po’s Bureau des Élèves has played on the notion of nightlife as a means to connect across cultures with events such as the « How I Met Sciences Po » party at Zig Zag, an event which was recounted by French and exchange students alike in the university halls during the following school day.
In addition to clubs, social media and online music communities, such as Resident Advisor (RA), also play a role as a by building networks of people from around the world who share music preferences. Since the communities are popular worldwide, cross-cultural attendance is guaranteed.
Coming together as young people of all backgrounds under the pretext of music is not just a means for furthering socialization in a painless manner; it is a reminder of the surface nature of cultural differences when compared to the similarities that we share as humans. The ability of a beat to prompt the joyous movement of dance is something shared among people everywhere, and has been embedded in different cultures for generations. Thus, it is only natural that Sciences Po students, French and otherwise, carry on the tradition and take to the dance floor.