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Speaking the Right Language

That's nice, but where is the bathroom?

When visiting a new country, a lot of people view language as an all-or-nothing proposition. They either decide to get by on flailing gestures and locals who happen to speak English or they buy phrasebooks and take classes at the local college, trying to become fluent in the two months before their trip. I travel to too many places to even think about learning all of the local languages, but I have discovered a secret that has gotten me into and out of more adventures than I can recall.

Learn a few specific words.

First, you should learn “Hello” and “Thank you”, in as casual a manner as possible. “Hi” instead of “Hello” and “Thanks” instead of “Thank you”. Every tourist guidebook should tell you these words, and these should be mandatory before you think of setting foot on new soil. Having these words at your disposal will help you get the attention of locals and show appreciation in a way that is much more comfortable for them. These two expressions alone set you apart from 90% of travelers who expect the locals to play a game of awkward charades each time they need to go to the bathroom.

In the past, as soon as I have said these words, I have seen entire personalities magically shift and open up. Shoulders relax, smiles emerge, and people who were trying their hardest to pretend I didn’t exist were suddenly going out of their way to make sure I had everything I needed. One particular salesman in Seoul was telling me that nothing that I was asking for existed in all of South Korea. As I was walking away, I told him “komapsumnida” (thanks), and his eyes brightened as the corners of his mouth curled upward. He called me back over, and suddenly everything I asked for was behind his counter, in my choice of color.

The good stuff.

“Cheers” should be next on your list. Every language has it, even those that forbid drinking. It is a great universal mood-lifter, from congratulating someone on something well done to just commiserating when something horrible happens and you need to keep moving forward. And for those cultures that center their social activity around drinking, nothing will bring a group together closer than everyone shouting it at the same time.

The secret.

Finally, there is one additional phrase that I always try to learn. I discovered its usefulness while hanging out with friends in Germany. They always used it as an excuse to start a new adventure or talk their way out of a bad situation, and it has proven more useful than any phrase I can think of.

“No problem.”

It’s universal, and it’s an expression nobody expects to hear come out of a foreigner’s mouth. It’s great for when someone suggests those things that are really fun but people are afraid of, like jumping in fountains or exploring deep inside off-the-map urban residential areas. It’s also great for defusing those situations that might occur as a result.

At the end of a very long day with over 30 hours of flying through random airports to get to a small town in India, never flying or stopping long enough to sleep well, I was taking a taxi to the hotel. I was completely exhausted and ready to collapse in a sea of plush bedding, though I would have settled for a pile of hay with minimal rats. As we pulled in to the driveway, suddenly the driver decided to start haggling over the price we had agreed on at the beginning. He listed never ending various reasons, from construction to traffic, and I didn’t have the energy to try haggling further. I slid him the original amount, looked him in the eye with a smile, and said “no problem”.

He paused for a few seconds, almost startled. Then he laughed and patted me on the shoulder. He took the bills while smiling, and rattled off a long string of things I couldn’t understand, with the occasional “you’re a good guy” in there. As I opened the door, he told me to enjoy my stay. I said “thanks” in the local dialect, and he laughed again before driving away.

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  1. 没问题 , 谢谢 !

  2. “Help!” might be a good one to learn too. Sounds like you haven’t really needed it, which is good.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Timothy Chan. Timothy Chan said: Great posting. RT @TravelTruly: New Article! Speaking the Right Language […]

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  4. Chris Dame says:

    Thanks for the tip on “No problem” in Chinese. It’s great to see how it translates across cultures. Some of them interpret it very… hilariously.

  5. […] with an ordinary agent, but perhaps one who needed a little help tying her shoes in the morning. No problem. I slowed down my speech and told her, again, that we had no luggage, and we needed on the flight we […]

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