Idiot-Proof Method for Communicating While Traveling
Get ready to look like an idiot
Travel Tip # 18: Get used to looking like a jackass whenever you try to communicate before learning a bit of the local language (and plenty often after).
A lot of folks think that every ex-pat is a linguistic genius. We drop into countries, whip out our Duolingo—and within weeks, we’re chatting away with locals.
Fuck no. Do you know how many noun cases there are in Russian? Or how to say ‘Ma’ with six different tones to get six different words in Chinese.
No no, mostly, we communicate through grunts, points, Google Translate, and dumbass sign language.
Dumbass sign language sounds like a bunch of kids flipping each other off but it’s actually a valuable skill every long-term traveler needs.
The first step to learning dumbass sign language is pretty straightforward: accept that you’re gonna look like a dumbass.
Here, let’s start with an exercise.
Try to tell a foreign doctor about your diarrhea. Go on. Think I’m joking? I’ve done it (think: butt turkey).
Or, try explaining to a pharmacist that you need hemorrhoid cream.
There are a lot of factors at play here. Do you make the shape of a hemorrhoid with your hands? Do you wince in pain while pretending to squat?
Whose ass are you going to point at?
Cause I promise, you’re going to have to point at someone’s ass. And yes, I have made the mistake of pointing at the wrong person's ass (literally any ass other than your own).
Okay, let’s get away from butt stuff and try some with food. Meat, in particular. I don’t know about you, but I’m no chef. To me, meat falls into two categories: probably bird and maybe pig.
Butchers tend to not know much English in my experience and if you don’t have a cell phone plan, you’re not getting a translator up anytime soon, so what’s the plan when you want beef? Moo? Are you really going to moo? No, of course not. You’re not that much of a dumbass.
So, you make some horns on your head—or, if you’re feeling frisky, mock up some hand udders. They’ll get the point.
Pork? Press up your nose.
Lamb? Fluffy tail (though be prepared for rabbit).
Just don’t try to get any seafood till you’ve got some language under your belt.
A related but no less important tool is ‘Dumbfuck face’
This is so useful, I wish I could wear it for every occasion. You pull this out in line at airports, when you’re lost on the streets, or when you can’t read a menu.
It’s important to get dumbfuck face right otherwise people might not know that you’re a sad lost little lamb who needs help. And you definitely don’t want to show them the face you’ve got on inside (your oh-god-I’ve-made-a-mistake face).
Dumbfuck face can be a precursor to dumbass sign language.
For example, back to the butcher. It’s not like in your home country where you can walk up and say, ‘Excuse me, I’d love XYZ’.
Also—and this is quite common—you won’t be able to explain to people shoving you aside that you are also in line for some meat.
Go on, try to navigate six elderly Italian women elbowing you out of their way to get to the counter before you.
You don’t. You just don’t. So, you stand there. If you’ve only got a normal face or confused face, that won’t work—people will think you’re trying to decide what to order. If you get a frustrated look on your face, no one will want to help you.
So: dumbfuck face.
Make your eye’s a little pouty, a dash of confusion, and draw down the lips—not too much, you’re not sad. Occasionally half-lift your hand like you’re unsure of an answer in class. The butcher will eventually spot you, feel sympathy, yell at the Italian ladies for being rude and then ask what you need.
Boom, you did it.
Tonight, you eat.
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