There are three words that every traveler should know in any foreign language when traveling overseas. They may not get you mistaken for a local, but it’s amazing how far they will take you.
What are these three magic words?
Simply “hello,” “please” and “thank you.”
I know, I know: This all sounds basic. And it is. But you’d be surprised (or maybe you wouldn’t be!) by how many people travel abroad without learning a single word of the language native to the country that they are visiting.
While it’s true that English is widely spoken around the world — around one in four people worldwide speaks English “at a useful level,” according to the Harvard Business Review — that still leaves three-quarters of the global population speaking a different language. Not to mention the fact that you’re in a foreign country where there shouldn’t be a reasonable expectation that people will speak the same language as you.
In South Korea, shop owners were so excited when I used a word or two of Korean that they’d often gift me small trinkets or a piece of candy. (I’ve found that using these same magic words in Korean restaurants in the United States sometimes results in extra dishes appearing at our table, “service” [free].)
The four-year-old daughter of my host family in Nicaragua didn’t care that I couldn’t speak much Spanish beyond, “Thank you. Delicious!” She was much more occupied with playing house with her dolls and teaching me songs from school.
Stepping into a tiny bakery in Salzburg, Austria, the language barrier didn’t seem so large once I pointed out the slice of Sachertorte I wanted, “bitte,” followed by a “danke” when leaving.
Here’s a tip: If you’re traveling with a notebook or smartphone, jot down the local words for “hello,” “please” and “thank you” in an easily accessible place. While most of us can easily remember “gracias,” the Thai “khob khun ka” may be a little less tip-of-the-tongue.
When in doubt, simply being nice also works like a charm.
P.S. As someone who lives in a city popular among tourists, I’ll let you in on a little secret: A dash of kindness will get you far here in the U.S. too.