Parlez-vous?

For the American tourist, the possibilities for misunderstandings abroad are as numerous as they are hilarious.

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By Deborah F. Anderson

The Chamber of Deputies was full; the delegates filling the large hall were businessmen and high-level government directors from many European countries. The keynote speaker was an American. The German representative spoke first, carefully and formally addressing all the dignitaries by title and organization. The American listened to the translation via headphones and looked at his watch (10 minutes just for the introductions! he thought.) A French speaker followed, with similar formality. Finally, it was the American's turn (These folks were sure livelier at dinner last night, he thought. They just need loosening up.) He turned to the French speaker who'd introduced him, "Thanks, Francoises!"

Whispers of disbelief spread across the hall. Not only had the American insulted the speaker by using his first name, he'd pronounced the "s" at the end, thus turning the Frenchman into a French woman! Undaunted, the American opened with a joke (which had his fellow Rotary Club members rolling back in Oklahoma). He delivered the punch line and looked around expectantly. The chamber was quiet. The speech, thankfully, was brief. Strike three and the visiting team is out. Will the distinguished gentleman from the United States please come out from underneath the lectern now?

As a visitor to Europe, you may never be asked to give a formal speech. Still, the possibilities for misunderstandings abroad are as numerous as they are hilarious. Take the example of the American tourist who hesitates before quietly asking a Spanish pharmacist for help because she is "constipado." The pharmacist nods helpfully, and gives her aspirin and an antihistamine. (Constipado in Spanish means "having a cold.") In Germany, most of us have figured out that if you're directed to the klosett, it won't be a place to hang your coat (think "water closet" here). Even in England, Americans are left stranded by their own language. In large department stores, when women go in search of a pair of pants, they are politely directed to the lingerie department. They are told to take the lift to the first floor (or an elevator to the second floor, in American English).

As an American expatriate for almost 20 years, I know first-hand the difficulty of integrating into another culture. There's the classic story of the American who moved to Italy and tried, really tried to fit in. He dressed in Armani and Gucci. He picked up the local language and expressions. One day, as he entered a little shop, he greeted the owner, Buon Giorno! The owner nodded, smiled. The American enthusiastically ordered what he'd rehearsed: un chilo di parmiggiano; una bottiglia di vino rosso! The owner continued to nod and smile as the grocery list was recited in perfect Italian. Finally, the owner said, "Signore, you're an American, right?" The American sank into his Guccis, defeated – "How did you know?" he asked. "Well," said the owner, "This is a hardware store."

Sometimes it is those very characteristics that mark our national character – friendliness, informality and national pride – that send a different message on foreign soil. The first clue may lie right inside your suitcase. Many guys, I've noticed, pack for their European vacation as they would for a golf trip: toothbrush, athletic shoes and most importantly, their lucky baseball cap (Go Yankees!), their business baseball cap (Big Al's Auto), and their patriotic baseball cap (USA!) I know this may go against our innate sense of individualism, but we are now advised to "blend" into the local culture we're visiting.

Most women, on the other hand, understand the concept of "blend." They want to integrate themselves immediately into their surroundings. Even if it's their first time abroad, women can sniff out a designer boutique faster than you can say "Charge It!" Prickly shopkeepers and foreign languages do not intimidate them. They can communicate "I want to buy this!" almost telepathically – if not, they will use whatever method they can. I have seen American women maneuver through the most intricate transaction using nothing but their hands and facial expressions. Nonverbal communication is essential, in fact, and works much better than just saying everything louder, as if English could be absorbed by sheer volume!

But the three most important rules to communicating in Europe have actually very little to do with language:

  • Think of yourself as an ambassador. Even if you're not riding around in a chauffeur-driven limo or golfing with heads of state, you are still representing the U.S. Most likely, the average European citizen isn't rubbing shoulders with the official ambassadors anyway. Instead, much of their opinions about Americans are going to come from you. Yes, you (and a whole bunch of Clint Eastwood westerns).
  • Don't take it personally. The same Italian waiter who has abandoned you for two hours and seems surprised at your impatience to get the check, is not doing so to offend you. Dining is a slow, deliberate affair usually followed by a nap. And don't be frustrated if the tourist office you're seeking is only open from 4:10 to 5:17, except on saint days, national holidays and any day ending in a vowel. Instead, make the best cultural connection of all – go have lunch. Not only can you watch the locals watching you, but you'll probably find the Tourist Office folks there, too.
  • Pack an open attitude. Why struggle with a strange situation? Embrace it. Laugh at yourself. It may be the last thing that translates in a speech, but humor goes a long way on the road. This doesn't mean breaking into hysterical laughter if the gendarme pulls you over. In most cases, though, keeping your cool goes down better than belligerence. The French express "to be in a bad mood" with the phrase "to be of bad hair." If you're having a bad hair day, refer to rule number two – go have lunch and a nap.

We communicate our own culture more than we realize. Europeans may shake their heads at the stereotypical American: the all-you-can-eat proportions of our Yankee pride and optimism, our billboard-sized patriotism and our Disney-like friendliness. Certainly our attitude is not everyone's cup of Earl Grey. Some of our countrymen should dim the red-white-and-blue flashing neon that announces them overseas. What we shouldn't do, though, is change those basic qualities that make us uniquely American. Instead, to any bemused observer of our particular idiosyncrasies, we should raise our glasses (Big Gulp-sized, extra ice) and declare, "Vive la différence!"

Deborah F. Anderson is a freelance writer currently living in Luxembourg and the program manager for an English-language radio show.  

Nonverbal Etiquette, European Style

The handshake…again? The most common American form of greeting is a handshake. In much of Europe, however, it's a handshake-a-thon! In the same office with the same colleagues, there's the daily morning handshake, the pre-meeting shake and the "back-from-lunch" shake. There is so much handshaking going on, they have come up with a method to avoid giving each other blisters: the "formal quick-shake." This is not the American grip of "hold, pump and hang on" while you try to remember the person's name. Instead, just grab, shake and keep on walking. Otherwise you may get:

The hug. Be ready – in many Mediterranean countries, you may get a hug, even from a colleague at work. This is not the time to back away in horror. Although not usually given on the first encounter, by the second meeting you might very well qualify for the "brief official hug," usually followed by the "friendly shoulder pat." Americans often stand dumbfounded during this ritual, teetering stiff as statues. But what really throws them for a spatial loop is:

The kiss. As common as the handshake in social situations, the "facial cheek kiss" or the "fake facial cheek kiss" maneuver is practiced in most European countries. Also light and quickly done, the lips can either touch you or simply sound like they are touching you (the "fake facial"). As the "kissee," the trick here is just to follow the kisser. Do not (unless you want to communicate something other than a simple hello) kiss on the lips. Instead, follow the right-left, two-kiss sequence. In Italy it's two, in Belgium it's three, and in France it's four kisses (normally right-left-right-left). The best approach is just to relax and try not to bump noses.

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