travel, Words

Stranger in a strange land: communication tips for travel

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My dear Florida Mary recently became a European. Although generally loving it, she just had a somewhat disagreeable shopping experience in Germany. Misunderstandings, raised voices and unhappiness ensued.

I urged her not to let the unpleasant episode sour her thinking. I’ve travelled a fair bit, mainly to non-english speaking countries. I’ve occasionally had similar run-ins but the vast majority of folk I’ve encountered have been patient and helpful. Perhaps the extreme reaction Mary got from the shop-woman was due to her own frustration at being unable to communicate with Mary. Perhaps she wanted to help, had no english, so just tried speaking louder.

You know the old thing? It seems we all believe it to some extent: Every ‘foreign’ person has only a thin layer of their own language around their brains. So, if we can just shout loud enough we can break through that layer to reach the understanding within…

In practice though, that rarely works out well.

While trying to comfort and reassure Mary, I realised that I’ve developed my own communication skills over the years. I thought it might be nice to bring them all together here. So, my top travel communication tips are these:

  • Be calm. Anxiety is a barrier to communication. Smile, speak softly and stay calm.
  • Learn the phrase “I’m sorry, I don’t speak [insert language]”. I’ve found this very useful. It acts as a warning to locals but also shows them you’re making an effort. I think it encourages people to be patient with you, especially if you’re sincere when you say it.
  • Body language, facial expressions and hand signals are invaluable communication tools. Learn to read them as well as to use them. I’ve had whole conversations with people based on a few words of the language and an awful lot of non-verbal communication.
  • Learn to say “please”, “thank you” and “sorry”. A little bit of politeness goes a very long way. I also try to learn what I consider to be survival phrases. The basics of life are water, food and shelter so I’ll learn the local word for ‘water’ and the necessary variant of “Do you have a room/bunk/camping place for tonight?” Also, for food shopping, I learn things like “One of those please” and “Half a kilo of that please”, then you can just point at what you want (and smile).
  • Smile… a lot (that’s those non-verbals again). Whatever you’re trying to do you’re likely to get a much better response if you do it with a smile.

Obviously it would be much better to learn a language properly and just talk normally to those you encounter. Ideally you would live in a country and immerse yourself in the language to become fluent. However, in practise this has never been possible for me. So, I developed my own set of communication tools. They’ve served me well and I’ve had some fantastic times around the world –  and almost always made it out alive  🙂

Edit:
Via a friend of Mary, I’ve just been given another good tip. It’s a little more passive than my own techniques but it is undoubtedly a good and useful method:

A [short] written phrase in different languages helped me on unfamiliar soil: “I’m unfamiliar with your country, please be patient with me. Thank you.” When encountering a language barrier or misundestanding, I showed this… It brought cordial smiles and a genuine willingness to help me with no impatience at all.

This is a really nice idea. Before you go, get a translation of a phrase like this in the local language. I bet it would be invaluable in emergencies – and would now doubt serve to defuse tensions when necessary. Nice.

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