As a South Africa-based health professional with decades of field experience in Africa, Asia, and Latin America (to start with), Ruth Stark has learned her share of lessons about getting by in another country—and in another culture. And while her new book (out this month from the University of Washington Press), How to Work in Someone Else’s Country, focuses on advice and ideas for folks embarking on short- and long-term work projects, it's also chock-full of tips leisure travelers can use, too. (I'm now seriously considering adding a water bottle to my suitcase as a bed warmer for romantic-but-potentially-drafty old hotels or B&Bs.;) Stark's book covers packing tips, safety suggestions, and travel-planning advice (oh, the complications of multi-country visas), but most invaluable are her years of experience building and observing cross-cultural relationships in all kinds of settings. And since this interpersonal stuff is what can really make or break a trip, we asked her for her no-fail advice for making inroads with locals anywhere you go.
Learn a few words of the language.
"You don’t need to know much," Stark says. "Even a few words or phrases will do—please, thank you, how are you? And don’t worry if you can’t pronounce the words perfectly. The fact that you try to say anything at all will show your interest and will get you off to a good start."
And don't forget to say hello.
"We Westerners tend to be very fast and efficient and like to get right down to business," Stark says, "But whether you're buying a bus ticket or meeting your tour guide, it's important to take the time to say a word of greeting first." A simple, "Hello, how are you today?" will suffice, Stark says. Even a nonverbal greeting—a smile, a nod, and a bit of a pause—stands in as a gesture of respect for the other person as an individual, not just a service provider.
Study up on the local sports heroes.
Skip talking politics—there's a much better (and less touchy) way to show you're interested in the local culture and current events. "Sports is a great ice breaker," Stark says. "When you meet locals who speak some English, ask about their sports heroes and the national teams. People are often passionate about the subject and love to talk about it—and it will likely open the door to talking about other topics."
Go ahead, brag about your kids.
"In the Western world, we often get to know people as individuals through what they do in their work," says Stark. "But in many parts of the world, the individual is viewed primarily in relation to their family network." Ask about a person's family, tell them about yours, and you're well on your way to finding common ground. "There is no better way to win friends," Stark says.
"Digital cameras have opened up a whole new pathway to making friends with the locals, even when you can’t speak the language," Stark says. "If you're taking pictures of a group of people you don’t know (with their permission, of course), offer to show it to them on the camera. Just like back home, people enjoy gathering around the camera and seeing how the pictures came out." And if you're taking photos of newfound friends, find a way to share the images with them, whether it's through email, a compatible cell phone network, or even mailing them printed photos. "It is especially meaningful if you send photos of your new friends with their families," Stark says.
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