For most travelers, communication can be at times exhilarating, confusing, intimidating, moving, or hysterical. But it’s well worth the effort – as self-appointed ambassadors, we’re like the world leaders gathering at the G20 summit, seeking to reach across cultural divides to create a sense of global unity.
Consider these pointers for polishing your cross-cultural communication skills:
* A phrasebook, a little homework and a reality check *
The desire to communicate is primal in humans, and luckily there is a lot that can be said without words.
When we do endeavor to speak across the cultural gap, it’s important to recognize that communication style, tone, and nuance can vary greatly between cultures. In some languages, loud speaking tones denote anger; in others, it can mean enthusiasm. Word meanings can be loose and relative too: in India, a response of “yes” can mean “for sure”, “maybe” or even at times “probably not”. Do a little reading before you go an learn about the cultural norms, common gestures and taboos in communication.
One step towards becoming a great cross-cultural communicator is to give yourself a gut-check before submersing into a foreign culture. Ask yourself: what stereotypes or pre-conceived notions do I have about the people I am going to meet? It’s important to recognize these so that you can move beyond them and make authentic connections.
Finally, even in countries where I expect to encounter a large number of English speakers, I find a local phrasebook is a must-have, as explained here.
* Hit the ground walking *
So here you are, fresh off the bus in a tiny village, ready to hold your own G20 summit with the first local you encounter.
First a foremost, it’s best to proceed any attempt at speaking with a smile – a universal ice-breaker if ever there was one. Next, speak s-lo-w-l-y and clearly, so there is a better chance of being understood. (Don’t, however, think that volume somehow increases understanding – it only makes you sound obnoxious!)
Try and simplify your phrases if you are speaking with a non-native English speaker; deal with single questions or statements at a time, and avoid the slang or figures of speech that commonly pepper our phrases. If you need to, draw a picture or write out number to help illustrate your point.
Always be polite — it’s best to err on the side of more formal speech — and while joking is a world-wide salve, do keep in mind that your humor may be lost in translation.
* Go Deeper *
Be creative with the limits of your language barrier, bearing in mind that your genuine interest in communicating speaks volumes in itself. Topics such as family, friends, favorite past times, home life and food can be shared with minimal vocab.
A good conversation is equal parts listening and speaking: be sure to ask questions as well as sharing about your life. It’s also a great gesture to try and speak in both languages (English and the local parlance), and as a bonus you’re bound to pick up some local phrases.
Caution: sincere attempts at cross-cultural communication can lead to beautiful friendships and richer experiences!
Photo by ob1left