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Tips For Interacting With Locals When Traveling Abroad
Remember, You Are The Foreigner
Too often, I find tourists getting snippy with locals because they can't understand what they're saying. While in Vienna, I was actually with a girl who shouted at our waitress – who spoke German – for bringing the wrong salad. She actually had the nerve to turn to me and ask, "Why can't she speak English?"
Because we're in Vienna!
It was mortifying for me, mortifying for the waitress and should have been mortifying for this nasty tourist as well. The correct reaction would have been to either to politely try to explain to the waitress – with hand gestures and pointing to the menu, if necessary – that she brought the wrong entree. Or, just eat the salad. Sometimes, receiving the wrong order in an eatery adds some adventure to the trip, anyway.
Of course, if you don't speak the local language it will take longer to ask questions and get your point across. Instead of acting impatient, take a deep breath and remind yourself how lucky you are to be having an interaction with a local in a foreign country.
If you have an important question that seems impossible to get answered – like where your bus will be arriving or how to get back to your hotel – don't panic. This will only cause you to seem like you're upset or angry, making it less likely for someone to answer you. Instead, think of an alternative way to ask your question. For example, instead of using words to ask for hotel directions, show the person the property's business card or a map and ask them to draw the route.
Carry A Pen And Paper
Going along with the above tip, one of the smartest things you can do when abroad is to carry around a pen and paper. Drawing pictures and writing out the names of sites and cities can be much more effective than speaking, especially as accents can get in the way. I find it especially helpful when buying train or bus tickets, as I can simply write down the name of my starting city and draw arrows pointing to the names of the other places I need to get to.
Keep In Mind That Cultural Barriers Are Part Of The Experience
This goes along with being patient. It may seem frustrating while you're speaking and not being understood, but keep in mind that it's all part of the travel experience. Once you return home, these incidents will probably have turned into comical stories of the trip.
Every Time You Interact Your Cultural Knowledge Grows
Each time you interact with a local in a foreign country you learn something about the culture or place. Because of this you should try not to be nervous about asking questions or starting a conversation regardless of your knowledge of the local language. Even doing something as simple as saying "hello" can help you learn about greetings in the community. On a recent trip through South America, I had a lot of trouble making steady conversation with locals, not because I didn't know Spanish, but because of my New York accent. However, having locals correct me was a great way for me to perfect my Spanish, and also add some new phrases to my vocabulary.
Don't Get Offended
Traveling in Ghana I was constantly trying to be polite, using the phrase ma daa si, or "thank you," as much as possible. However, every time I said it, my courtesy was met with hysterical laughter. At first I felt stupid for not being able to say the phrase correctly, until my homestay mother explained to me that I shouldn't be offended and that the locals appreciated foreigners trying to speak the local language of Twi. It was also common for Ghanians to shout oburoni, or "foreigner," at you as a way to start a friendly conversation, call you skinny or fat to describe a fact or propose marriage to you within just getting to know you. You have to get out of your Western mindset and remember that in other countries different responses and behaviors mean different things. Plus if the person you're interacting with really is being rude to you, it's no different than if someone at home were doing the same thing. Ignore them and move on.
Research Cultural Taboos
While you shouldn't get offended, you also don't want to be offensive. Before leaving for your trip, do some research on the etiquette and customs of the culture you're visiting. Asking someone personal questions may be acceptable in one culture, but not another. Moreover, take space and touching into consideration. We may shake hands in America to greet someone, but if a woman tried to shake the hand of a monk in Thailand that wouldn't be good.
Take A Chance
So what if you say a word wrong or the person you're talking to doesn't understand you? Most likely, the worst thing that will happen is you end up walking away without your question being answered. On the other hand, what if you get your question answered, learn some new foreign vocabulary and make a new friend? Think of the possibilities of your interaction and take a chance. When in Ghana I traveled with a girl who was terrified of talking to locals even if just to hail a taxi or purchase fruit at the market. One day we were buying fabric to have dresses made and she asked me to order hers for her. Because I wanted her to have the experience of interacting with locals, I refused. In the end, she was really proud of herself for talking to the local woman and wasn't so terrified to interact from there on out.
Teach Locals About Yourself, Too
While you're curious about the life of the local you're talking to, they're probably curious about you, too. Make sure to share some insight, and if you can, bring photos of family and friends, and items that give them some insight into your culture.
[photos via Jessie on a Journey, Jessie on a Journey, IsaacMao, houdinics, Jessie on a Journey]