When planning for an adventure abroad, we often go to great lengths to make sure we didn’t forget anything. Many of us tend to overpack, cramming our luggage with useless clothing and gadgets that will probably never see the light of day in that foreign land due to its, well, uselessness. Though there are many tangible items that are essential to any trip abroad, like a passport, Visa card, and a pair of fresh socks, I argue that the most important things that you can bring with you are intangible: knowledge, an open mind, and a proper attitude. Each of these are profound and extensive subjects in their own right, but knowledge is what I’d like to focus on. Specifically, knowledge of some basic words, phrases, and gestures in the language(s) of the country you are visiting.
Why learn a few pieces of the language? Well, aside from the slightly more selfish point that the traveler is allowed to eat, sleep, and commute with less hassle, learning some basic words and gestures goes a long way in those daily interactions with the locals. The language barrier is what it means, a barrier brought on by different languages. To break down this barrier, learning is necessary. When you try even but a few words in another language, and pronounce them like the finest of gringos, it shows the host that you at least tried. Laughter may ensue, depending on the severity of mispronunciation, and joining along in laughing at yourself will further help your cause in the end. Especially if you are an American these days, like me, we have earned a bad rep globally, especially as tourists, in many countries. You can impact that view of the place you come from by showing the simple submission of dropping the English language while there and expressing that vulnerability of attempting the local language; it is disarming and a grassroots way of shining a positive light on everything and everywhere you represent.
So, what words are good to learn? I will start with the most obvious and important, and move on towards some useful and less common ones:
This is the conversation starter, and bears interest in the immediate future. It politely alerts those you directed it at to your presence. When walking into a store and by showing this bit of friendliness, it pays dividends quickly when the inevitable moment comes when you need assistance in some way. When needing to stop someone to ask for directions, a “hello” is a great way to start. Oh, and don’t forget to smile every time, to show friendliness; otherwise, you look grumpy and opposite of the attitude you were trying to convey in the first place. Now, though “hello” is one of the most obvious words to know, verbal expression may not be where the problem lies. Often, we may wave our hand from side to side, or something similar, in conjunction with the spoken greeting. However, there are numerous gestures for this introductory greeting, almost as many as there are languages, and knowing which one is appropriate can be the clincher. Sure, 95% of people know how to say hello in the language of the country that they are visiting, but most of these travelers use the “English” gesture with the spoken word. While the wave may be universally recognized, so is the English word “hello”, essentially. If you really want to immerse and show your hosts that you have been trying, know the proper movement to go along with it. Also, there are customs that immediately follow the greeting, many times. When you say hello, you are used to probably shaking hands, kissing cheeks, and hugging, if you are close with the other party. Many other cultures have their own ways of this greeting custom, and it is important because what may be a standard, amiable gesture in one area may mean something else, possibly something with negative connotations, in another part of the world. For example, bowing is the traditional gesture in Japan, but in Canada, they may think you are fainting (or exploiting their generous health care system). It is common in many Arab countries to hug and kiss both cheeks, men as well as women, but can be considered obscene if two people of opposite genders approach it this way. Don’t even offer to shake hands, hug, or kiss someone of the other sex here. Cheek kissing should be learned too, otherwise you may have some very awkward moments. In Belgium, one cheek kiss is common, and gender and level of acquaintanceship is irrelevant. In Hungary, two kisses are standard, always from right to left (if you go left and they go right, your lips end up kissing, so make sure you get this right!); Russian men tend to kiss women three times, usually right, then left, then right again. Russian men will greet other men like they were auditioning for a strongman competition, squeezing the other guy’s hand to the point of “Uncle!”, while maintaining eye contact for what seems like eternity.