Skip to content

How Nonverbal Cues Can Break Down Language Barriers, According to a Travel Psychologist

May 17, 2018
6 min read
non verbal communication when traveling
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

A Swiss friend who is fluent in six languages told me once that there are really only about 400 words we use each day, no matter what country we’re in. The rest of our communications are nonverbal.

It's true that, despite being proficient in a number of languages, I rarely rely upon words to get by abroad. Instead, I pay attention to when and how to speak; practice carrying myself in a welcoming posture; smile and mimic regional mannerisms that help me blend in and connect with locals.

Without even realizing, all travelers have a cache of techniques for communicating when the words and letters just don't match up. And these nonverbal cues can make it easy to transcend even the most formidable language barrier. Best of all? You don't need to learn 400 new words to get by on your next international vacation.

Send out clear vibes

In the same way that nonverbal cues can help you talk to strangers, they are also key to transcending language barriers.

Dr. Albert Mehrabian, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that more than half of communication is nonverbal (approximately 60%). What that means for travelers is that you’re sending out signals to people around you, quietly communicating how you feel, what you’re thinking and what you want without ever uttering a word.

Be extremely self-aware

You may think you’ve made it clear to your waiter that you're ready for the bill, but your body and face may be communicating something else entirely.

There is a trove of research on the importance of both nonverbal behavior as well as self-awareness in "The Journal of Nonverbal Behavior."

But here's an example that’s not academic:

During dinner with friends at Les Vapeurs (a fantastic seafood restaurant in Trouville-sur-Mer, in Normandy), I wanted a third bottle of white wine — but was hesitant to ask for it because I worried my friends might take me for a lush.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Across the room, our waiter caught me gazing at my empty glass. When I looked at him, he raised an eyebrow and nodded his head. I raised an eyebrow back at him. Moments later, a bottle arrived at the table.

“Did you order that?” my friend asked.

“I didn’t say anything,” I said.

Exude confidence and happiness

You know how they say dogs and horses can sense fear in humans and, as a consequence, they may react to that aggressively? It's more or less the same with people, around the globe across every culture.

But travelers looking to make friends will find the tactic also works in reverse. You smile, the other person smiles. It's a behavior that starts at infancy. When you laugh in front of a baby, the baby laughs. You cry, the baby cries.

On that note, it helps to stand up straight, pay attention to the other person (even more so if you have no idea what he or she is saying in their native language) and grin.

Numerous scientists and psychologists have studied the science behind smiling as a powerful and nonverbal social behavior, dating back to Guillaume Duchenne in 1862. His groundbreaking research led to the phrase, “the Duchenne smile,” which means, “a genuine expression of positive emotion."

More recently, at the University of California at Berkeley, psychological scientists LeeAnne Harker and Dacher Keltner found that “Duchenne-worthy expressions of positive emotion in 21-year-old photos (of women) had greater levels of general well-being and marital satisfaction at age 52.”

And in 2010, in a study published in "Psychological Science," Ernest Abel and Michael Kruger of Wayne State University “found that smile intensity could explain 35 percent of the variability in survival,” among a group of baseball players.

Even if it doesn't help you communicate with locals as you travel, it may very well help you live longer.

Pay attention to context

Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz, two psychologists at the US State Department and the University of Memphis, respectively, found recently that language acquisition (when people are younger) is made chiefly through memorization.

In their terrific book, "Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language," they demonstrated that people remember better and faster when they are younger.

But as we age — and frankly, our memory diminishes — we rely upon context to help us learn new words. In fact, the psychologists found that older people are more contextual than younger people, meaning they can suss out a situation faster and with more accuracy than their younger counterparts.

Though my Japanese language skills cannot hold a candle to my native English, fluency hasn't stopped me from communicating extremely well in Tokyo. There were evenings there when, with friends holding lengthy conversations in Japanese, I've been able to join in and say (in English) “Sure, let’s go dancing later on.”

All I had to do was catch a vibe, a restlessness within the group and a glance.

Learn the rules

In India, for example, rocking your head a little left and right means “yes.” In Switzerland and Germany, eye contact when making a request is desirable while in Japan, it can be considered rude. Thumbs up? Fine in Europe, but those are fighting “words” in the Middle East.

A tap on the shoulder, hand shakes, how close you stand or sit next to someone on the subway? All of these are defined by the distinct cultural norms of your destination.

Business communities around the world invest significant time and money into teaching employees how to behave themselves internationally.

And though you don’t need to sign up for a course, it's wise to do a bit of basic research on nonverbal cues that exist in the country you’re about to visit. Not only will you avoid misunderstandings, but you’ll also enhance your trip.

After all, who wants to be in a situation where it’s not, “What did I say to upset that guy?,” but rather, “What just happened to upset him? I didn’t even say anything!

Keep quiet

Speaking of silence, even this can vary widely across nations. In the States, with a group of people, it’s not uncommon to have interruptions, fast talking and interjections. Before you even hear the answer to a question, another is being asked.

That’s not the case in Japan. There, long pauses between statements are considered respectful. It shows that you’re listening. I’ve been out with friends in Kyoto when hours passed by and fewer than, say, 400 words were spoken between the four of us.

But the vibe, I must tell you, was very pleasant.