I’ve traveled locally and internationally and I’ve come to learn that whether we are at home or abroad, there’s value in connection. Whether it’s an ethnic enclave in the city where waves of immigrants continually arrive and enrich the locale with more culture, or whether it’s another country entirely, there’s value in being a good guest and exercising manners and kindness. Not only does it reduce chances for conflict, it also makes people more willing to help you.
But there are times when it is impossible to use polite words because of language barriers and the manners you grew up with are too touchy or too cold in the new place you find yourself in. And even though you’ve loaded up on vocabulary and verb conjugations and tenses, when the panic of a new situation sets in and you’re all alone, there’s a failsafe: You can always conjugate a smile.
At the end of 2011 when I traveled to Seoul, South Korea, I’d memorized two month’s worth of vocabulary and phrases. I was nowhere near fluent, but I knew that given the circles I’d be in and the fact that I had an awesome friend translating, I’d be fine. And it was fine—when that friend was around or when I was in atmospheres of English education.
Like every good traveler worth their sea salt, I had memorized the only phrases necessary to a comfortable life in another language aside from “hello” (and, you know, the language itself): “Where is the restroom?”, “Bathroom?”, and “Toilet?” These phrases were internalized so deeply that I still remember them to this day. But even in the heyday of my studying, that doesn’t mean I could say any of those things in an understandable accent. I found myself standing in line before a young cashier who had no idea what in the world I was trying to say.
I could have been an entitled brat: I AM A GUEST IN YOUR COUNTRY! I TRAVELED 16 HOURS TO BE HERE AND HAD A 2 HOUR LAYOVER AND I HAD A LUGGAGE SCARE THAT WAS QUELLED ALMOST IMMEDIATELY BUT THEY STILL GAVE ME A VOUCHER FOR A NICE MEAL SO THAT I WOULDN’T TWEET ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE AND EVERYTHING WAS PLEASURABLE BUT I STILL DEMAND YOU TELL ME THE LOCATION OF THE NEAREST RELIEF-RELATED FACITILTY!
I could have loudly gone on a diatribe that no one would have understood: I PRACTICED THE SAME WORDS FOR TWO MONTHS AND MY FRIEND WHO IS EXPOSED TO MY ACCENT KNOWS WHAT I’M SAYING AND IS TOO POLITE TO TELL ME THAT I SOUND LIKE I HAVE BOULDERS IN MY MOUTH WHEN I SPEAK—HOW DARE YOU NOT UNDERSTAND MY ATTEMPTS?!
I could have cried in public. (For the sake of what dignity I have left, there’s no CAPS-LOCK example for this. Hypothetically, just imagine a brown boy sobbing his eyes out in public and everyone caught entirely off-guard. That should be pleasure enough.)
Falling slightly shorter than all of that, I took a deep breath and exhaled a smile.
Despite the line of customers behind me (who may have had to wait only an extra 30 seconds) the cashier kept his cool and said something to the folks in line. I guess he said “Who here speaks English?” or “Somebody get this know-nothing dingbat off my queue!”
Whatever he said (I’m willing to bet it was the former but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were the latter), a man came up to the front. At this fateful moment in history, several things happened in rapid succession: We greeted, he listened to me, he translated for the cashier and became my hero, we both got ½ off coupons for lattes, the café got a new regular, I got a few new friends that I’m still in touch with til this day, and I got to pee in a proper facility. All because of a smile.
A breather and a smile, no matter who initiates it, resets the entire situation and restores us all to our common humanity: The part that wants to connect with everyone.
In the Northeastern city of Recife, Brazil, understanding the language is much easier than it was in Korea. But Portuguese is a lot more difficult than the Spanish I studied. In my early months here, my Portuguese was horrible. I kept falling back on Spanish that was only semi-appropriate for the situation. With the non-English speakers I ran into (basically everyone outside of the schools I taught in), it was an interpersonal nightmare of spoken trainwrecks.
There were times I was thoroughly frustrated and humiliated and admittedly on the brink of calling a wahmbulance.
Instead, I have found that taking a breath and re-introducing yourself to the person you’re talking to (and yourself) mid-conversation can work wonders.
For me, it was a smile and the survival fallback phrase that I’d learned to make understandable through trial and error with non-English speaking Brazilians: “Com licença, amigo—Eu sou dos estados unidos e meu Português é mais ou menos… Por favor, começamos de novo. Lentamente?”
Generally, it’s been met with situational laughs, ahhhs, and invitations to hangout. (And many selfies.)
It’s important to remember that misunderstandings aren’t the result of an innocent fairy and a big ole meanie troll. They occur when expectations aren’t met and people’s initial coping mechanisms aren’t enough for the situation at hand. We resort to getting defensive and trying to project what we think the other person should understand while the other person does the same with us. Rarely do we think: Let’s strip it all away and start at the base. At the base is goodness, the desire to connect, and understanding.
And all of these good intentions can be symbolized by a smile.