Christopher Columbus may be the best-known traveler who didn’t know where he was going, but many of us think nothing of flying around the globe to a land where the people and culture are foreign to us. Keep in mind that when traveling abroad, diplomacy isn’t just for diplomats! Every courtesy should be afforded to our friends in other countries, and we should always take care to be respectful of cultural differences.
The Golden Rule of international travel is that adapting to local customs is basic courtesy. While most countries will not expect you to be an expert about their culture, they will appreciate a bit of knowledge.
Some general guidelines apply, no matter where you travel. Mary Bosrock (www.MaryBosrock.com), author of the book series Put Your Best Foot Forward, cites ten rules for international travel, including never make assumptions; don’t compare the place you’ll be visiting to home; never talk about money; don’t wear inappropriate attire, don’t neglect the dining etiquette of the country, and make sure you use no inappropriate body language.
Do Your Homework. Before you embark on a trip, learn the basics of the country you’ll be traveling to, especially when it comes to politics, currency, the arts, gratuities, dress code, and how to interact with people in private and public. Try to learn, at the least, the words and phrases for hello, goodbye, please, thank you, and pleased to meet you.
Remain Courteous When Abroad. Remember the adage “When in Rome” (or anywhere else, for that matter!). Think the Golden Rule when on foreign soil: Treat others as you would like to be treated. Be respectful of cultural differences, and add a heaping teaspoonful of patience and flexibility.
Doing Business Abroad. When traveling for business, keep in mind that other countries are highly suspicious of American hype, so don’t oversell yourself, your products, or your services. Deals are not closed quickly abroad. Furthermore, people of most other cultures are more reserved than we are, so it’s important not to come across as too overbearing or domineering.
Avoid American Slang. This includes ballpark figure, let’s beef up the numbers, and let’s crack open a bottle of bubbly to name a few. When in conversation, remember that small talk in the United States may mean something entirely different globally.
When Traveling in The United Kingdom. Remember that English words have different meanings in the United Kingdom. Napkins, for example are serviettes; an elevator is a lift; two weeks is a fortnight, and a bathroom is a loo or water closet.
If English Is Your Host’s Second Language. Speak slowly and clearly, and be extra patient.
Handshakes That Grab Respect. In the currency of business encounters, the handshake is like the dollar: the most frequently exchanged legal tender of American business transactions. It’s also a symbol of respect, and the proper business or social greeting in almost every country. Like it or not, you will be judged by your handshake: firm and strong versus limp and weak, please!
Listen More Than Talk. It’s been said that we hear half of what is said, listen to half of that, understand half of that, and remember half of that. All and all, listening is the key to communication, especially when there are language barriers.
Language barriers can create some startling miscommunications when traveling abroad. When I traveled with former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown to visit our sister city in Osaka, Japan, I noticed that whenever I gave out my business card, I was given funny looks. En route back to San Francisco, I was told by a gentleman seated next to me that my business card did not say “Director of Protocol” but “Doctor of Birth.” One character printed incorrectly changed the entire meaning of my title. You can imagine how horrified I was to learn that everyone thought I was a gynecologist traveling with a male mayor.