I love traveling. It has truly been the most rewarding part of my corporate career. Whether it’s from observing different behaviors at the airport or the varied experiences I have had in different parts of the world, I have learned a great deal. I have been fortunate enough to visit almost all 50 states of the U.S., as well as most continents. I am appreciative of this, seeing as I couldn’t afford to have such a vast travel repertoire on my own dime. Even though I am there to do the company’s bidding, I manage to take one or two days to take in the sights.
One of my most enjoyable travels was my business trip to Brazil in 2013. ( I wish that I had waited and gone in 2014 so I could stay for World Cup..oh well). The whole week, including evenings had been spent locked away in conference rooms. By Friday, I was eager to break free and make the most of the weekend. I had so much fun exploring the popular tourist sights like the Cristo statue and Pao de Acucar, finding handmade treasures off the beaten path, and simply basking in the sun while laying on the Ipanema beach.
Amidst all the fun, one thing struck me. In my humble opinion, these were the friendliest people I had ever met. Even though I speak two words of Portuguese and the people I met barely spoke English, I still felt genuinely welcomed by everyone I met. Whether it was asking for directions or getting a drink at the bar, there was an element of patience as they would try to communicate using one or two English words and mostly hand gestures.
I remember Ana, a middle-aged woman I met while waiting for my flight from Sao Paolo to Rio de Janeiro. She spoke no English but kept speaking to me in Portuguese even though it was clear I didn’t know what she was saying. After I exhausted my knowledge of Portuguese, getting past the basic desculpa and muito bom,we were stuck. That’s when I whipped out Google translate, aka life saver. We had a pleasant hour-long conversation about life (work, marriage /divorce, family, etc.) in which she told me I was too beautiful to be single (lol), and she wanted me to marry her son.
On the flip side, my experiences in London and France were … mixed at best. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met some nice and welcoming people. But I did meet many more that were abrupt and sometimes rude. Many years ago, I walked into an antique store in Strasbourg and spoke to the woman behind the counter. I asked her a question in English and she responded in French. I then attempted to communicate using my broken (taught-in-high-school-by-a-Nigerian-professor-with-a-thick-accent) French and she pretended not to understand me. Frustrated, I gave up and just kept browsing. A minute later, I heard her speak fluent English to someone else in the store! Although I didn’t know of Google translate at the time, I doubt it would have helped me.
I have had shops in Central London look at me, not as a potential customer, but as someone who was lost when I walked into their stores. Even before words were spoken, I was met with impatience, an unwillingness to try.
While language difference can sometimes be a barrier, it is not an insurmountable one . Remember the movie Love Actually? Though fictional, the interaction and ensuing love between Colin Firth’s and Lucia Moniz’s characters exemplifies this. You can sense a person’s spirit, their desire to connect and communicate, even when you cannot understand their words. Once this desire is there, you will find a way to understand each other.
I have heard some friends express reluctance to travel to places where English is not widely spoken. They resist going to places outside of the U.S and Western Europe for fear that they will not be able to communicate or have fun. Do not let this stop you. Get out there with an open mind and take in the culture. You’ll be amazed at how easy it can be to communicate …. especially if you both really want to!