Tip #4 Meet Strangers
How Best to Introduce Yourself in Another Country
By Jeff Goldman
At home, when you meet new workmates, attend a community workshop, or go to a job interview, you usually introduce yourself. Often you offer a business card. You want to show respect, get to know other people, and spend time together on common interests. This rationale is just as relevant when you travel and live abroad. Don’t worry if you don’t speak the local language. One trick I’ve learned when traveling to another country is to bring along a simple one-page biography that someone has translated for me. When living abroad, I’ve even sent my “introduction” sheet to colleagues in advance of meeting them. I’ve been amazed by the warm reception I received.
To be fair, it’s easy for you to get to know a local culture by reading a guidebook, traveling, or even meeting foreigners in your home country. Locals don’t have such opportunities, especially in less economically advanced countries. They meet few travelers, can’t afford to travel, and don’t have access to such books. The little they may know about your background comes from news, movies, or television. Typically, locals only have your body language, dress, and actions by which to understand you.
On a cold, lonely November day in Budapest, Hungary, I phoned a 20-year-old computer-savvy student I had picked out of a hospitality network directory. Using my 10 words of Hungarian, I asked him to meet me. Sandor mustered all the English he knew, replying, “Okay, you Mozart Café five today.”
Within minutes of warming my hands again around a hot mug of tea, I offered Sandor my personal introduction sheet. His face lit up with interest, and he scrunched his eyebrows with intense concentration. He smiled and pointed at the lines about my interests in nature and playing basketball. He scowled at other lines about eating health food and listening to opera. Mostly, we laughed a lot.
Reading about my interest in holistic health, he hustled me to an outdoor thermal bathing club that I never would have learned about on my own. As we relaxed in hot pools under the gray autumn sky, Sandor elaborated in choppy English about why his last girlfriend ran off with an actor.
In eastern Germany, after learning about my interest in politics and government, a new friend escorted me to a museum in the former office of the secret police, the Stasi. We then talked for over an hour about my favorite books, chess, and other subjects of mutual interest that he picked up from my introduction sheet.
Time and again, I have found my one-page introduction sheet an invaluable way to show respect, give locals insight about why I am traveling in their country, and find places of interest. If you can’t have a friend or organization translate it before you go, seek out a local person when you arrive. You can always find some willing person, in hotels, universities, tourist offices, or restaurants, who is eager to help and practice English.
When writing an introduction sheet, besides explaining yourself from your unique cultural perspective, also include some information in which locals might be interested based on their cultural norms. For instance, I’ve found people wanted to know in which order my siblings were born, what my father’s job was, and why I was traveling alone without a spouse and family. Although locals usually read the sheet and return it, you may want to carry extra copies to give to the unusually curious.
JEFF GOLDMAN has tested many tips while visiting 47 countries and leading community service trips to South America and Asia. He shares travel and work abroad ideas in adult education seminars.