Some say love is the universal language, others say it’s English; I say it’s body language. If you’ve ever traveled to a foreign country and immersed yourself in local culture away from the tourist hubs, you’re probably familiar with that disarming, humbling feeling of being constantly talked about, often right in front of your face. During my recent mostly solo travel adventure through Thailand, I found myself constantly acting the fool as I attempted to blend in with locals in the streets of Bangkok. Without knowing any bit of Thai or having a fellow travel buddy, I found everything to be harder, from navigating the confusing city streets to ordering street food for dinner. It’s tough having everyone, even the local police, stare at you with confusion as you point to a map and ask for directions, or have the local papaya salad lady insist on serving all of the local customers before she even acknowledges your presence.
After my first day of pure frustration of trying to get around Bangkok on my own, I began reading the book “What Every BODY is Saying,” by former FBI agent Joe Navarro. The book’s main premise is that nonverbal behaviors make up 60-65% of all interpersonal communication, making them ubiquitous and reliable, working in pretty much any personal situation. When one is able to become an active observer of his or her own environment and learn to recognize and decode nonverbal behaviors that are universal and idiosyncratic, it makes it much easier to get a better understanding of your environment, even in a foreign location.
“The problem is that most people spend their lives looking but not truly seeing, or, as Sherlock Holmes, the meticulous English detective, declared to his partner, Dr. Watson, ‘You see, but you do not observe.’”
― Joe Navarro
I began taking Navarro’s advice to heart and established some ways to effectively begin coping with the verbal language barriers I kept encountering in Thailand.
1) Pay attention to what the feet and legs of your counterpart are doing. According to Navarro, the feet and legs are the most honest parts of our bodies, reflective of our evolutionary fight or flight instincts. When we like something, we plant our feet to face our bodies towards the positive stimulus, and vice versa for something that makes us uncomfortable. This behavior applies in most foreign environments, so take note to the direction your counterpart is facing when you interact with him or her.
2) Acknowledge that you’re an invader of a foreign environment, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you truly begin to become an active observer in a foreign country, you’ll be attuned more than ever to how locals will treat a foreigner in their environments. It won’t always be negative, especially if you’re in a tourist area where supreme customer service is highly valued, such as Japan. But if you’re a traveler like me who tends to avoid touristy areas, you’ll get used to being stared at and whispered about among the locals. I’ve learned that the best way to deal with these situations is to constantly remind myself that it’s part of the experience. I’m opting to be an overt foreigner in a new environment, and if I’m completely honest, I’ve been guilty of this same behavior when dealing with tourists in my own home.
3) Disarm a tense or awkward situation with a nod of acknowledgement, and a sincere smile. As I mentioned before, it’s not uncommon in many foreign countries for locals to blatantly start talking and joking about you in their language while you’re standing right in front of them as they try to decipher what it is you’re asking for. It’s a humbling experience, and I’ve watched some tourists get enraged and offended, setting the tone for an unfriendly exchange. The better way to handle such situations is to first take the advice of point #2 above and then acknowledge that it’s a funny situation by offering a sincere smile. It’s rare when a friendly smile won’t set a positive tone.
4) Learn a few basic words and gestures in the foreign country. I admit this is the most challenging part for me since I’m such a visual person and have a hard time mimicking foreign sounds, but locals do view you differently when you make an effort to exchange words and greetings in their own language. In Thailand and much of Southeast Asia, that greeting is a wai, consisting of a slight bow with the palms of the hands pressed together in a prayer-like manner. This gesture requires no verbal speech, but in Thailand it is usually followed by a sa-wat-dee kraup/ka (male/female) when done as a greeting, or a kob kun krab/ka (male/female) when done as a thank you.
The next time you’re traveling, either alone or with others, I encourage you to put your language guide book away and use your eyes instead. Consider body language as a strong form of communication and see how it may affect the way you travel and interact with others.