25 chapters, 100,000 words, 120 illustrations
 Table of Contents
On $25 a Day or Less
Art of Travel - European and World Backpacking

Chapter 2

Verbal and Nonverbal Communication

English in Europe  Gorilla English  Systems and Schools  Politesse  Nonverbal Communication  Talking and Listening  Traditional  Societies  Song

HAVING LEARNED ONLY a smattering of French in school, in most of the countries I have traveled there has been a language gap between me and the natives. Fortunately for travelers and the human race, thought is independent of language.1 Therefore the shared experience of being human allows us to communicate many basic aspects of being human.

Indeed it is not only possible but relatively easy to navigate other countries with little or no command of the local language. Furthermore, English is the international language. Around the world when an Italian meets a Dane they usually communicate in English since it is probably the language they both speak best. In Asia, with over twenty major languages, English is used for business, tourism, and air-traffic control. English is also the lingua-franca for many African countries. Thus we monolingual Americans have lucked-out.

Because Americans come from a huge country where English is spoken from one end to the other, we often have more fear than other nationalities about not being able to communicate. Most countries are far smaller than ours, and their people are more comfortable traveling in places where they don't speak the native tongue. They are also more adapted to dealing with visitors who don't speak their language.

Few travel backpackers in Poland (and there are many) speak any Polish; few in Hungary speak the unusual language of Hungarian; and in Tanzania not more than one backpacker in twenty before arrival knows much more than one word of Swahili. (Which would probably be "jambo," which passes for "hello," "goodbye," "good day," and "Yes, I will have some chicken soup, thank you.") So don't let a perceived lack of language skills be a barrier to international travel.

English in Europe

English is widely known in much of Europe. Indeed many Europeans have at least some facility with many languages. The first Belgian truck driver I met spoke five languages well, which I later discovered was about average for Belgian truck drivers.

But that doesn't mean you should immediately begin babbling in English when you approach someone. First politely ask their pardon, and then humbly if they speak English, preferably in their language. Since it's likely you often won't know more than one or two words of the native tongue, you'll get plenty of practice with "humbly." As one hilarious German shot back to my query, "While you were in the back of finger-painting class shooting spitballs, I was learning Italian, Spanish, French, and yes, a little English!"

We should also be aware that when someone speaks English she is not speaking an American language. English is a world language we are fortunate to speak. If you comment that her accent is funny, she could rightfully retort it is your accent that is funny. You will meet many second-language English speakers with better English vocabularies than many Americans.

How will I know what people are saying to me?

The indisputable fact is if you nod your head, smile, and seem agreeable everything will sail along just fine about ninety percent of the time. When making simple, not-too-important everyday transactions with non-English-speaking clerks and waiters--and you want to expedite the matter--you can usually just nod and pleasantly agree with whatever they are saying. Most of the time you have already effectively communicated what you want by physically being wherever you are. They are probably making a pleasantry, or some finer point like "Where would you like to sit?" "I have relatives in Chicago!" or, "Will Pepsi be okay?"

If their expression changes and it sounds like they are asking the same question again, try a shake of the head along with a shrug, opening up the hands to simultaneously say "no" and "I haven't a clue what you're saying." A competent clerk or waiter will make an appropriate response and carry on from there.

The other technique is to politely ask if they speak English. All travelers, including Germans, Italians, Japanese, and French do this. They will say "Yes, a little," "No," or they will find someone who can. Eventually the problem is solved or it goes away. I offer my presence once again in the USA as proof.

These techniques lead to an occasional surprise, but usually on the level of "beef" or "chicken." Most travelers soon learn not to be too picky. (As long as it's not monkey brains or liver...)

Gorilla English

Communicating with someone who speaks only a little or an unknown amount of English can be tricky. People who say they don't speak English may actually know a few or many words. Keep your sentences simple, speak slowly and clearly. Experienced travelers do this routinely.

Sometimes it's helpful to use a local inflection. In Poland I had to say "Coke" and "Coca-Cola" several times before hitting the right tone for a baffled young waitress.

Try not to use nonstandard idioms. Simple words and appreciative facial expressions work well. You don't need to go into a big production to communicate simple things. Excess verbalizing may lead to unnecessary confusion. Much is communicated without spoken language--we are all human beings, after all.

Language Books and Learn-A-Language Systems

English-Norwegian Norwegian-English dictionaryIf I'm staying in a country for more than about a week, one of the first things I do on arrival is to shop bookstores for an English-That Language/That Language-English pocket dictionary with, if possible, verb conjugations. These small books are always popular, and cost just a few dollars.

Berlitz Swahili phraze book.Phrase books, such as the multi-language Berlitz or Lonely Planet European, are useful, but best if used in conjunction with a dictionary. If I could have only one, I would choose a dictionary due to greater flexibility when used with the following language sheet system.

I tried an electronic translator, but keying was ponderous, it wasn't as useful as a book, and it made me feel extra-ridiculous.

The Amazing Gregory Communication Sheet/Dictionary System

To begin write on a single full-size sheet of paper the fifty basic travel words below, with translations and pronunciations in the languages you need, one sheet per language. A single sheet places everything you know in that language in front of you. This system works best when used with a pocket-sized English/That Language--That Language/English dictionary.

Try to write a few new words on your sheet every day. Pull it out of a pocket when trying to communicate with someone, perhaps pointing to the word you are trying to say. Let them write on it if they want to. You may be surprised at the generous language lessons you receive, and can always make another if they get carried away.

Fifty Basic Travel Words

Guatemalan Spanish Language Schools

I highly recommend attending Spanish language schools in Guatemala. For $75 to $150 per week you get four to seven hours per day of one-on-one instruction, and room and board with a local family. Living with them you eat mostly eggs and beans for economy and authenticity.

In two to four weeks you can acquire a working knowledge of Spanish, enhance future Latin travels, and improve job prospects back home. It's probably better if you don't make reservations in advance, but just show up as there are hundreds of schools competing for business.

Every week you could go to a different school in a different city. I know of one in a colorful, isolated, highland village. The former colonial capital Antigua is a beautiful, fun, and safe place to begin. In summer it's loaded with gringos and gringas. There you can also get decent private rooms for a few dollars per night.

Ecuador and Peru also have inexpensive Spanish language schools popular with backpackers.

The best way to prepare is to study conjugations from a verb dictionary.


Highland Festival -- Click for a wider shot (57k)
Photo: Highland Festival



Politesse is the use of courteous formality to show respect and consideration for others. Many Americans have become quite informal and "easy-going" -- to the point we may seem overly casual and abrupt to foreigners.  But for most of the world the old standards still exist.

In France, for example, you should liberally pepper phrases with "Monsieur," "Madame," and "s'il vous plaît." People throughout the world expect to be addressed with respect by a stranger.

The Ugly American Syndrome

Gestures and Nonverbal Communication

If you want to be polite it's a good idea to tone-down gestures when traveling, since you probably won't know all the local customs and mores. In general, don't point your hand or foot at anyone, or belch, yawn, or fart loudly, unless, of course, you're joining in.

In Thailand it's rude to expose the sole of your shoe or foot to someone, to step over someone, and to touch anyone on the head. In India and other places where toilet paper isn't significant to the culture, touching anyone or presenting anything with the left hand will raise more than eyebrows.

Western travelers, on the other hand, may be distressed by the tendency of some Arabs in normal conversation to lock unblinking eyes mere inches from yours. As noted by American anthropologist Edward T. Hall, this is normal conversational distance for Arabs. (Indeed some Arabs believe they can determine reaction to what is being said by looking closely at  pupils: if they dilate, you like or approve; if they contract, you dislike or disapprove.)

In the 1950's Hall pioneered proxemics and kinesics, which are the studies of how people of different cultures use nonverbal signals to communicate.

includes social distances between communicators, and the use of time, smell, touch, space, and territoriality (untouchable space).
includes body movement, gestures, facial expression, eye contact, posture, and speaking volume.

Since most people are unaware of their own cultural patterns of nonverbal communication, they are unprepared to deal with the patterns of other cultures. This is probably a major cause of misunderstanding between cultures as we interpret each other as rude, pushy, childlike, cold, etc., usually not for what is said, but how it is said, and how we act.

Hall's books are required reading for Peace Corps volunteers. Several are listed in the bibliography, and all are helpful for communicating with a higher level of understanding. But just being aware of the nonverbal aspects of communication will help. I recommend for travelers to be sensitive to the rhythm of ordinary life around them, and to try to get in sync with that rhythm.

This is actually easy as humans have a natural instinct for mimicry. While you don't need to out-Zelig Woody Allen in Zelig (in which he takes on the appearance of a Chinese after a few weeks in China), for most Americans slowing-down and getting with the beat of local life is essential for absorbing the richness of a foreign culture.

Sign Language

Don't be embarrassed to use sign language. It works great, gets better with practice, and is an age-old and completely normal method of communication. You already know dozens of signs.

Talking With Backpackers

Backpackers from all over the world can pretty much say anything to strike up a conversation. One English backpacker opened up with about ten lines of Shakespeare I couldn't quite catch. (My reply: "Et tu, Brutus?") You don't always have to begin with where are you from, how long have you been traveling, how do you like it, etc. While everyone is an exception some of the time, overall we are an interesting, fun, and good-humored bunch. And we all know one of the best sources of information is other travelers.

Listen for Good Advice

If you travel on a low budget you will probably get a lot of advice from the people you meet. Some of it will be of the highest value. Some of it will be pure crap.

Communicating in Small-Scale, Traditional Societies

In such societies you will be expected to be an envoy from your family. They may ask first and foremost about your family, ask to see pictures, ask what they do, etc. You might carry a family photo for such occasions.

With one group I visited it was customary to seek out and individually greet each person in descending order from eldest to youngest, including children. This took a few pleasant minutes for a gathering of about twenty. It's probably a good general rule to show respect to elders first and foremost.

Understand that you are on their turf. Be polite and gracious. Try to be sensitive and not make snap judgments. It takes years for anthropologists to get an accurate feel for what's going on in any society. As a traveler you can't expect to do much more than observe.

I recommend taking it easy with the camera. Pulling out a camera often changes the dynamics of communication for the worse--if not eliminating it entirely. Most tourist photography I see is intrusive and a kind of trophy--and it really does take away something. While some people don't seem to mind, there may be a larger story beneath the surface smiles and nods.

Many cultures frown upon or prohibit photography. In one village near San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas photographers face a $65 fine, confiscation of film and camera, and even a night in jail. The villagers' sincere religious beliefs (which are not Catholic) run counter to the desires of most tourists. The Tarahumara people of northern Mexico endure a great deal of photography from tourists, but if you ever talk to these quiet and shy people privately, you'll find they really don't like it.

If you want someone's photograph don't flash your camera in their unsuspecting face for a quick snap, be a sneak-thief with telephoto, or throw candy to children. Instead, approach your subject with all the human warmth and politesse you can muster, register your intent with a motion to your camera, and let them know their time and cooperation is a treasure.

If a tip is desired consider the offer with respect, even if you ultimately decline. Sending your subject a beautiful print may be much appreciated. Approached correctly, many people will be happy to pose.

As I wrote this I was thinking of someone I met and didn't photograph, a middle-aged woman in fantastic native dress, her smile, beauty, and dignity.


In New Zealand an older Japanese woman descended from a tour bus and approached Reg, a tall and wild-haired Maori fellow I was hitchhiking with, and began singing what sounded like a traditional Japanese song, perhaps of greeting. Then she bowed and smiled, returned to her bus, and waved as she zoomed off.

That evening we clinked our beer glasses to toast that wonderful woman. It was our considered opinion that if you have a song to sing, by all means, sing it.

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1. From linguist Steven Pinker's most readable The Language Instinct (New York: Harperperennial Library, 1995.) back