For many English speakers, the linguistic challenges to traveling abroad are reduced due to the prevalence of English as a widely spoken lingua franca. However, language is not all there is to successful communication. Here are 5 non-verbal tips to consider for your travels abroad:
- Body Language: Body language varies dramatically across cultures. It is not advisable to use or depend on the body language you’re accustomed to at home anywhere, any time. Instead, research the culture and gestures of the destination before departure, and practice effective non-verbal communication. While a smile in many cultures – particularly Western – is a warm, friendly gesture that indicates happiness and cooperation, in Asia, a smile may imply as embarrassment, fear, or contempt.
- Eye Contact: In Western culture, direct eye contact is expected approximately 40-60 percent of the time during a discussion and shows respect. However, in certain cultures such as in Thailand, intermittent eye contact is appropriate. In Mexico and other cultures, direct eye contact may be seen as a challenge or act of defiance or can show a lack of respect.
- Gestures: Rather than pointing with a finger – which is considered rude in some cultures because pointing is used to indicate the accused in a criminal proceeding – use your whole hand, palms flat and thumb out to the side to indicate direction. To beckon, motion with the whole hand, palm side down, with the fingers moving.
- Vocabulary: It always helps to know your P’s & Q’s when going into new territory. Download and use valuable tech tools before you go. Use Google Translate for the basics – please, thank you, hello, goodbye, etc. Then cross reference in a guide book or other online language tool to confirm correct word choice and regional pronunciation. Memorize before you go, and once you’re on the ground, you’ll have it down in no time!
- Demeanor: In the heat of a challenging communication situation, the number one tip is to stay calm. Showing frustration, raising your voice, or faulting the other person reflects poorly on you and won’t improve anything. Rather, keep calm and if communication goes south be okay with letting go.
Successful travel communication depends heavily on the preparation pre-departure. Download cultural and language books and guides to read for insight and body language tips. Bring a dictionary or printout for keywords. Be willing to learn and improve your communication skills in that culture.
Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is a cross-cultural trainer, attorney, modern manners expert, and the founder of Access to Culture. In addition to her accreditation in intercultural management from the HOFSTEDE Centre and the Intercultural Communication Institute, she serves as a Chinese Ceremonial Dining Etiquette Specialist in the documentary series Confucius was a Foodie, on Nat Geo People. She is the resident etiquette expert on two popular lifestyle shows: ABC Tampa Bay’s Morning Blend and CBS Austin’s We Are Austin. She is regularly quoted by BBC Capital, Investor’s Business Daily, and Fortune. Her Amazon #1 Best Selling book in International Business, Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Business Guide (Wiley 2015), now in its third printing, was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2015. She’s a winner of the British Airways International Trade Award at the 2016 Greater Austin Business Awards and the 2017 New York City Big Book Award for Multicultural Nonfiction.