Learning culture as well as language clears travel barriers
By Marnie Hunter
(CNN) -- Doing your homework before you travel to your destination can go a long way toward avoiding cultural blunders and clearing the language barrier, making for a more enjoyable visit.
"Even learning what the greeting is in the language of the culture you're in is already a good start," said David Solomons, CEO of Culture Shock! Consulting, a London, England-based company that offers management and diversity training to international organizations.
"If you want some information from those cultures, and you start in English without the greeting in the language of the culture you're in, you're liable to set up resistance before you even start," said Solomons, whose company also has worked on research and development for a series of customs and etiquette guides called Culture Smart!.
Don George, global travel editor with Lonely Planet, agrees that the appropriate greeting goes a long way. While living in France, he quickly learned to say "Bonjour, Messieurs Dames," as he entered shops.
"It's a very polite formality that people do in France, and just learning that made me feel much more like I was a part of the culture and made people treat me differently."
Travelers who watch and listen for customs and values and ask questions of the locals when misunderstandings arise show their hosts they are interested in a cooperative exchange.
"People are very pleased, by and large, to answer your questions and are actually pleased and flattered if you take an interest in them," said Geoffrey Chesler, editor of the Culture Smart! series.
In addition to "hello" and "goodbye," other gracious terms should be among the first words a traveler learns in the local language, said Sheryl Olinsky Borg, editorial director for language and phrasebook giant Berlitz Publishing.
Olinsky Borg recommends travelers learn to say "excuse me," "sorry," "please," and "thank you" as well as practical phrases such as "I don't understand" and "Do you speak English?"
Phrasebooks and guidebooks provide phonetic spellings to help with pronunciation, and learning on location is a quick way to get up to speed.
"A lot of it is just on-the-spot studying, just studying how the locals do what they do is a very invaluable curriculum for the understanding of a culture that you're unfamiliar with," George said.
If the culture has a formal and an informal way of addressing people -- the difference between "vous" and "tu" in French -- make note of it.
"You wouldn't want to address someone in a formal situation using something that you would say to your child or to a peer of yours," Olinsky Borg said.
Being able to identify some general food words will help in navigating menus, and travelers should know how to communicate any dietary restrictions they may have.
Sometimes knowing how to pronounce the name of a place is only half the battle in countries that do not use Roman script. Not being able to read or write in the local language presents unique logistical challenges.
While living in Japan, Lonely Planet's George always kept a business card from his hotel with him to show to taxi drivers or people he encountered. He often would have Japanese acquaintances write down the names of places he planned to visit before he set out, so that he would have something to show potential helpers if he got lost.
Solomons' universal tip for confused travelers? Ask.
"Nine times out of 10 people will go out of their way to help you," he said.
Language is just one part of communicating effectively with people of different cultures. Gestures, attitudes and the history that informs them often play a big role in how locals respond to international visitors.
The thumbs up sign, for example, means different things in different cultures, and in many countries crossing your legs or pointing with your index finger is considered rude.
Many guidebooks offer a "dos and don'ts" chapter where potentially offensive gestures like patting people on the head -- generally a don't in Asia -- are reviewed along with table manners and other specific traditions and taboos.
The Culture Smart! guides offer this type of advice in the context of a brief history of the country, its people, social structures and norms.
Familiarity with certain attitudes and historical events often provides visitors with a greater understanding of daily interactions.
"In some cases it's almost impossible to know why people are behaving and reacting in a certain way unless you know where they're coming from," Chesler said.
"There are societies that have come through various traumas, or remembered traumas, and it is impossible to get the hang of them unless you know something about that," he said.
No matter how much preparation a traveler manages to fit in before a trip, they are bound to make mistakes along the way.
"All sorts of misadventures will befall you," George said. "So the best thing is to have an open mind and a good sense of humor."