You Are Abroad. "中文" Means Nothing To You. Now What?

You Are Abroad. "中文" Means Nothing To You. Now What?

Go boldly where you never went before!

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

Now that COVID-19 will be vanquished (knock on wood), companies will look to the future. And that future may call for professionals to visit other countries from time to time. Among these, there will be plenty of first-timers to given countries.

Excited, you should be. Concerned? Perhaps.

I can hear your thoughts from here. "What if I do not understand what is being said?"

This fear often means that these first-time travelers will self-isolate. They won't dare go out of the hotel, deemed "safe" because English-speaking staff is on call 24 hours a day. And they will go elsewhere only while escorted by a colleague or a partner.

What if I tell you that this is precisely the way not to enjoy yourself while abroad?

OK, I get it. I am infamous among my colleagues for being the multilingual guy with an iron stomach that trailblazes his way abroad. But without becoming that extreme, I strongly believe that anyone—yes, even you—can learn to be more self-reliant while visiting a new country. That will only make you more effective while visiting clients and colleagues; it will also make your trip so much more memorable.

Here are four of my tricks.

Do Your Homework On The Country, And Learn A Few Words

Before you go to a new country for the first time, you want to read Wikipedia about it. Sure, it won't instantly make you the top-notch expert on their political system. However, it will give you precious gems about its culture and history.

Why would you want to learn any of this? Because people are not only the product of their genes. They are also forged by their environment. And besides, this is what scares you: you end up saying something that angers your hosts.

Truth be told, you are entering their home. They make the rules, you don't. And like any gracious visitor, you don't want to come empty-handed. Knowing a few details about the country you are visiting may not mean much to you, but in my experience, it is worth its weight in gold for the ones you visit.

That includes their language. Picture it: you come in a room full of people that do not speak your language. Many may be a tad nervous because, well, their English isn't perfect. And then you greet them in their language, however imperfectly.

Difficult to imagine a better ice breaker.

Impossible to do? If your goal is perfection, you bet. But this is NOT what I am talking about here. I am talking about knowing how to say "how are you," "nice to meet you," "yes," "no," and "thank you." Five words total.

If you do not know how, go to, type what you want to say in English, translate it. There is even a Romanized version with a play button so you can hear how to say it.

The first time I went to Korea, this is exactly what I did. The gentleman that welcomed me (and spoke perfect English) said that I would have a LOT of fun in Korea with that attitude. He was right. After a few trips, I know enough to get food—all kinds of food—and go pretty much anywhere I wanted, solo, if I wanted.

You are still concerned because you won't be perfect? So what? Showing some effort will instantly put you head and shoulder above 95% of visitors. And if you end up saying something bad, well, that's why there is tip #2.

Meta-Communication: The Art Of Speaking With Your Smiles...And Your Hands!

man Your hands and smile can convey meaning too!

Photo by Fatih Kılıç on Unsplash

My couple is multinational. That makes life, well, interesting at times. Not all my family members know how to speak English besides "yes," "no," and "toaster"—and my wife may not always know the right French words.

But somehow, even the monolinguals among family members make it work. Quite nicely. How?

Well, one of my aunts showed the way. Whenever she doesn't know how to say something, she will raise her shoulders, raise her hands, make a face and utter a sound that conveys an unmistakable message: I would like to proceed but can't.

As you can imagine, she has a knack for provoking laughter. But through that laughter, tension is released. My wife understands, slows down, and then, somehow, they muddle through.

Now, I am not suggesting you intentionally try to crack up your hosts. And you should never, ever mock them. But an embarrassed smile is a magical weapon. It releases pressure. It indicates you need help. It elicits your host to provide you some much-needed help.

What if it is your hosts that are finding themselves a bit short on words? Smile benevolently. If they are bending over backward to speak to you in your language, you owe them nothing less.

What about the rest of your body? Your hands can convey a lot of meaning. Point to the parts of the visual support you are using. Use gestures to emphasize your point. Not to the point of being clownish, of course, but it generally pays to be a bit more expressive in cross-cultural communication.

Note that your hosts may not always reciprocate. For example, the Japanese tend to be more chased in their non-verbal reactions. The good news is that they are not going to hold you to the same standards. In fact, they may even appreciate a few gestures. But if you want to ensure your gestures are well-received, may I suggest that you research gestures that may be misunderstood in the hosts' culture?

You Can (And Should) Google Proper Behavior Abroad

person using white and gold compassPhoto by Ethan Sykes on Unsplash

Indeed, we live in an era where getting information about the country you visit is extra easy. The information is available at your fingertips. And albeit being a bit more demonstrative abroad is generally a good idea, some gestures that seem innocuous to you may end up being shocking to your hosts.

I know because even after so many years on the road, I still forgot to apply that lesson!

A couple of years ago, I visited Malaysia. I was meeting with a government official, who happened to be a "she." I smiled at everyone, gave my card with both hands and with the details facing her, and then proceeded to shake her hand.

Big mistake. After I shook it (not that vigorously), she removed it quickly and threw it in the air in a way that left me more than a bit puzzled.

Explanation: in her culture, you just don't do this.

She was a good sport and did not hold it against me. But I should have been more careful. I thought I knew how to behave because I visited Malaysia before, and handshakes were pretty standard. But it was my first time in that city. And that city had a more conservative vibe.


Now, don't be paranoid either. Even if you make a mistake, it will probably be forgiven. But you should not count on it. You are a guest in their home. It is your responsibility to know. And with the internet, there is no excuse for not knowing.

Dare To Experience The "Vida Loca" While Abroad

@How would youlike that cooked?"

Photo by CJ Dayrit on Unsplash

Alright, so you arrived in a foreign country where you don't master the language. You did your homework. You learned a few words in the local tongue. You also learned to smile and exhibit benevolent gestures to foster goodwill with your hosts.

How? By going local. Excellent. How about doing this one last thing and ensuring that not only you impress your hosts, but you get to have a load of fun while you are at it?

Eschew "foreign" restaurants. Make it clear to your hosts that you are very much looking forward to experiencing THEIR food in the type of restaurants where THEY usually eat.

In some cultures, they may want to edulcorate the experience by bringing you to arch-expensive joints that often boast dishes deemed "safe" to foreign palates. Resist politely. Tell them to give it to you the way it should. Assure them you are open to new experiences, and it would be too bad for you not to get the local flavors.

And then prepare for an experience that you will likely remember for the rest of your life!

The first time I went to Korea, the wannabe distributor made extra-sure I would be "comfortable." They secured a hotel room at an international hotel with English-only menus and no Korean dishes in sight.

The second time, I would have none of it. I book my own accommodations and told them I would take the metro to their office.

That left them perplexed. "Hum, Steve, usually foreigners coming to Korea don't take the metro."

Precisely why I will do it. I am not your regular, "off-the-mill" foreigner.

Once the distributor understood just what type of "crazy" sales pro they had in front of them, they ensured I got the Korean "100% kimchi" experience, inclusive of delicious BBQ, excellent seafood (some so fresh it moves on your plate when it is served), and access to their secret drink menu no foreigners are supposed to know about (osipseeju someone?)

They even taught me proper—and extra-spicy—Korean. Which I used with clients to our mutual benefit (NO, not the extra-spicy kind!)

As you can easily guess, we have had LOADS of fun. Of laughter. And guess what? It helped cement the relationship. Tension dissipated. There was a much higher level of understanding between both parties.

For over 13 years, that distributor was a star of my former employer.

Who knew you could have your kimchi and eat it too!