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Important Words, Phrases, and Gestures to Know When Traveling


A short list on what I think are the most important words to know in the language of the country you will travel to.


Just like saying “hello” is crucial to asserting your presence and lack of ill will in an affable fashion, learning how to properly say “goodbye” is tantamount in importance. Especially when there is that language barrier, it becomes necessary to use the correct verbal and/or physical departing gesture, in order to announce that your conversation is over (imagine if you just walked away when your conversation partner still had something to say). It’s the last way to show that you tried to display politeness, and will leave a good taste in their mouth as you depart, as opposed to the derogatory grumbling you are apt to hear if you leave in a bad way. Usage of the proper accepted gestures are also equally important, because kissing cheeks may be expected in one place, while this same action may be rude in another. The worst gesture that an English-speaking person may make while implying goodbye is the moutza, which is the outward-facing palm with all fingers fully extended, like many of us would use to denote the number 5. In Greece, this is like saying, “eat shit!”, stemming from the Byzantine era when criminals were paraded through town and townsfolk would smear cinder, or sometimes shit, to further ridicule them. Make sure you use the correct form of “goodbye”, if more than one exist. In French, Adieu is more like you will never see them again, whereas Au revoir or À tout à l’heure are temporary, something like saying, “until we see each other again” or “see you later”.

Good Morning/Afternoon/Evening/Night

Everyone will agree that these salutations, along with their correct usage, are some of the first that you should know in any language you attempt. They can replace the word “hello” in a more desirable way; “good night” can replace “goodbye” at times. These are more personal greetings, and exude a warmth that make “hello” and “bye” seem quite mechanic and cold. By default, learning these phrases will teach you the different sections of the day, such as morning, afternoon, and night, which will come in handy sooner or later.


You are bound to ask for a thousand and one things while on your excursion, whether you are at a restaurant, in a taxi, or at the store. The best thing to do is to learn the word for “please” in the local language, and then start every question with that word. It buys you time as you work out the rest of the words needed to fully form a semi-coherent query. It also again shows your vulnerability, and usually warms up those it is directed at to your plight, so they will be more inclined to help you. Rude Americans (those two words seem to be used consecutively around the world) are those who don’t say please, and they may receive spit in their meal as a result. It’s a roundabout way of implying that you need assistance, and your inquiry will be met with less resistance than without it.

Thank You

Equal in importance to “goodbye”, it shows the proper appreciation that is due to those who just helped you or served you. Like “goodbye”, it leaves a positive feeling in the other person as you leave, instead of a negative one. “You’re welcome” would be a nice reply, but often a smile will facilitate the same level of acknowledgement, so not quite as necessary.


Knowing how to say “yes” or “no” seems easy, and you may figure that the English words are fairly universal, anyway. However, knowing these two words are more useful than you may realize. For example, your knowledge of the language is horrible, at best. You ask for something to eat at a counter at the deli, and the deli person, once they acknowledge your lack of knowledge of the language, can point to things, widen or narrow their hands to determine size and quantity, and other actions in the 20 Questions fashion, to which you can reply “yes” or “no” until you get the item you were seeking. Furthermore, they can use the same strategy with you when you need to pay; you can hold up every bill and coin on your person while they reply “yes” or “no” until you have paid for the food and irritated all the customers behind you with the slow transaction. Gestures here like nodding “yes” or “no” don’t have the opportunity to get you in as much trouble as other gestures, but it is still important to know the correct way to express them. Nodding may not be recognized. Finger gestures are common, and you may be familiar with “no” being when an index finger is shaken back and forth from left to right; an outward facing index finger moving up and down can signify assent in many countries, though at a restaurant in Mexico and some other countries this can be a rude way to ask the waiter for someone to clean your table.

Good/Bad or Approval/Disapproval

Knowing how to show your approval or disapproval can be helpful; while expressing disapproval or discontent seems like the antithesis of being polite as a guest in another country, you cannot allow yourself to get pushed around, at the same time. Many vendors can be very pushy as they push their wares or foods, sometimes going as far as trying to physically stop you. This is when you need to tread carefully, to avoid a worse altercation. In the USA, it is common for people to gesture “good” or “bad” by displaying a thumbs up or thumbs down hand. But imagine if you are eating at a restaurant and the waiter comes by and asks how your meal is, and you reply, “Sit on my erect penis and rotate”. In many countries, like Greece, Italy, parts of Africa, some of Latin America, and the entire Middle East, you just gave that response if you gave them a thumbs up!

How Are You?

Very basic question, but with a deep impact on the future of the conversation. Asking this is almost expect when making small-talk, and knowing this phrase is also useful in understanding it for when it is directed at you. Answer with a “good” or “bad”, a “thank you”, and then direct the same question back at them.

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Christian Eilers
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Christian Eilers
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  • You are right about learning few words. I once made a trip to Mauritius and people there speak a variation of French, Creole. It got so tough for me to communicate as very few speak English. My maid spoke Creole and I spoke English, we couldn’t even talk….

  • Interesting article, but it lost my interest when the writer mistook the word “tantamount” for “paramount”. I expect better English in anyone whose profession is writing.

    • Dale, I’m also quite critical of my typos and such, but they do happen from time to time. However, in this case, I meant to use ‘tantamount,’ which means ‘equivalent in value, significance, effect, etc.’ A clue to my intention is the way I started the sentence – “Just like . . .” The word ‘paramount’ means ‘superior’ essentially, which was not the word I was going for; I meant here that their importance was equal in value.

      Anyway, thanks for stopping by, as well as your compliment!

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