Few things are as wonderful and satisfying as traveling to a different country, encountering cultures and activities unknown to you. On the other hand, few things are as frustrating as being unable to make yourself understood when you get to your exotic location. After all, hadn’t you spent time poring over the phrase book, ensuring that you were able to ask at least the basic things? How does it happen that, even with all your preparation, you still have trouble communicating, and – even worse – may have, despite all your good intentions, dreadfully offended a local?
Don’t worry. It’s a given that misunderstandings are going to happen. They happen to people who were raised in the same city, with the same cultural underpinnings. It’s not surprising that they would also happen between people of vastly different backgrounds. Still, here are a few basic steps you can take to prevent your long looked-for vacation from becoming a disaster.
Know Your Destination
This doesn’t just mean to know where you are going, but that you should take the time to learn about more than the location. A little research on local customs, things to definitely not do or say, and on foreign words that have similar pronunciation but wildly different meanings will help. Also, don’t rely on stereotypes, or assume you will instinctively know about a place based on ancestral connections; this rarely works. Local people you meet will appreciate the fact that you took the time to learn about them, specifically, and will likely be much more forgiving of small mistakes.
Remember, Humor Doesn’t Translate Well
When you can barely ask for the bathroom properly in a different language, it’s a good idea to avoid anything as complex as humor. For one thing, a lot of humor depends on shared cultural markers to be understood correctly. Also, remember that miscommunication is not only possible, but standard, even in other English-speaking countries. Ask yourself if you really need to tell that joke, or to make a funny or sarcastic remark about something you see on your travels. The smart answer, for cross-cultural communication and friendliness, is usually “no.”
Of course your camera should rarely be still, as you photograph every wonderful thing you see. But what I mean is, take pictures with you. Long before you go anywhere, put together a small travel photo album that contains pictures of everything you might want to ask about. Pictures, yes, of bathrooms, hotels or beds (be careful with this one, particularly if you are a woman – you don’t want to be misunderstood as propositioning someone!) and other everyday objects. When the words simply are not there, a picture, as the saying goes, says a thousand of them.
If, despite all your efforts, you wind up unintentionally offending someone when you are on your travels, don’t panic (unless panic is called for – depends on the misunderstanding.) Apologize, first of all, and see if anyone is around that speaks both English and the other language who can help you out. In a good many cultures, rudeness to strangers is frowned upon and most understandings can be smoothed over with a little effort.