Have you ever played the game of Charades, where one person acts out a word without speaking? Living in a foreign country can be like an endless game of Charades. You might not realize the acting skills you possess, but before long it has become a part of your daily life. It starts by holding up fingers to express numbers. How much does it cost? Three fingers. You hand over three lira. What time does class start? One finger. You show up at one o’clock.
Pretty soon, things get more complex. Where is the library? You shrug and hold up your hands to ask where, and then pretend to open a book and read it. Perhaps the hand gestures indicating directions lead you to a book store instead. There you try again. You hold up your wallet while waving your hands above it and shaking your head, trying to indicate you want books but you do not want to pay for them, you only want to borrow them. Eventually, you might find the library. Or you might not.
I’m an English teacher, and even though I work at a university teaching college students, I sometimes feel as if I am in a kindergarten class. When discussing vocabulary words, I often end up acting them out. People usually get words like elevator, stairs, lounge chair, fish, giraffe, balloon and rain. However, it can get complicated when you reach words such as clean, solid, salt, leather and and so on.
You might feel like you can’t go wrong with certain gestures, such as waving hello. However, this is not always a recognized motion. During my first days in Turkey, I was confused. People seemed friendly, yet when I smiled at them or waved, they seemed to avoid me. Soon I discovered Turkish people blink their eyes and nod once downward to say hello. Can you try saying hello like that?
There are other gestures that are important to learn. For example, instead of saying hayir, which means “no,” a person can click his tongue on the roof of their mouth, raise his eyebrows and nod back once. Can you do those three things all at the same time? In American culture, this seems to be indicating something like “How you doin’?” or possibly a halfway “Yeah.” Before learning the meaning of this expression, a foreign might ask a question several times.
“Do you have this dress in large?” a traveler might ask in a clothing store.
The salesperson responds with a click, head nod back.
“Excuse me, is this available in a larger size?”
Click, head nod back (while still making eye contact, I might add).
“Yes? LARGE? Grande? BIG?” the traveler can say now indicating the size with her hands.
Click, head nod back, and now the salesperson is growing frustrated. After all, she told the customer three times that she does not have the dress in large.
If you can learn even some basics of the language, it will get you much further and help you have better experiences. Ultimately, it is connections with people that help one learn the most about a culture. In Turkey, the practice of sitting and chitchatting is very important. This is often done with a tulip-shaped glass of hot Turkish tea in hand. The more words one can find the better, because you might be sitting with someone long enough to have several glasses of tea. But if words simply cannot be properly communicated, you can always resort to acting, or at the very least, smiling. This might feel a bit goofy, but a smile goes a long way.
There are also other methods of communication, like art, using one’s visual senses, tasting, preparing food for someone, sharing food with someone or giving a gift. Everyone can understand a musical melody or appreciate someone else doing something nice for them. These things become all the more meaningful when words are lacking.
Turkish people are very excited when a foreigner speaks several words of Turkish to them. Even saying a basic “Hello” or “Good day” often gets praise from the locals. I react the same way in Turkey: If someone obviously does not speak English, but comes up with a few words like “Thank you” or “Good evening,” because they notice I am an English speaker, I feel special. After all, it’s not easy for everyone to remember other languages, and a little effort makes a big difference and helps people to connect.