When I traveled to South America for the first time in my professional career last year, I realized just how powerful language is. Unlike in much of Europe and the Carribbean, where many know English as a second language, I found that even though I was in a large metropolitan and business-centric area, the second language for the Portuguese-speaking population was more likely to be Spanish than English.

Now, I certainly do not expect people in non–English-speaking countries to speak English. After all, I have not studied a second language since college. And, despite my parents’ attempt at persuading me to study Spanish, I chose French. I learned promptly in my professional travels that although it is a beautiful language, French is not the mostly globally utilized tongue. I have since purchased study materials for Spanish lessons; however, devoting time to a task I may not use daily has not moved higher up on my to-do list.

And that’s OK. Meeting and event professionals do not need to be fluent in every language they encounter. But there are some best practices that can help you conduct a smooth program, provide attendees with exceptional customer service, and keep them safe.

 Let’s explore some tips and tricks for language relating to global travel. In a future article, I will examine best practices for working with translation services, and tips for when and how to use local staff internationally.

Learn Basic Words and Phrases for Social Interaction
Create a cheat sheet with basic words and phrases such as: My name is… Do you speak English? Hello, goodbye, good morning, good evening, thank you, you’re welcome, I’m sorry, excuse me, yes, no.

Beyond first and last name, do you know who is attending your event—and what their native languages are? Examine your attendee list for home country information; you can even poll the group for their preferred language during online registration. Understanding their cultures and researching the local niceties and gestures will help you disseminate information in the best format for your group.

While knowing everything about each culture you will encounter at your global meetings is impossible, being able to greet people in their local language will not only help you better serve your group, it will endear you to them and the local hotel/vendor staff.

It also shows you care when you learn how to pronounce people’s names properly. There are many online tools to help (even Facebook has name pronunciation assistance now!). I suggest trying a few Web sites to confirm name pronounciation consistency and accuracy before making notes for your on-site use.

In person, if you are not confident about the proper way to pronounce a name, it is appropriate to make a confident attempt (leave out the “umms” and “ahhs”) and follow up by asking if you were correct. If you didn’t quite hit the mark, make note of the proper pronunciation for yourself and staff. 

Pay attention to body language too. A quick Google search can provide ample opinions on professional and personal interactions between cultures. Some greetings are brisk, such a single-pump handshake in Germany, and others are more personal such as the handshake/hug/single-cheek-kiss combination popular in Latin America.

While it’s important to do your research, it’s best to observe and follow the lead of the locals with whom you are working. You do not want to err on the side of being too intimate too quickly.

Basic Words and Phrases for Safety
Planners commonly request emergency plans or the location and phone number for the nearest hospital when planning any program, but if you had to use that information during international travel, would you know what to say once someone picked up the phone?

For your personal safety and that of your group, knowing how to clearly request emergency services can save time when it’s most needed. Sample useful basic words and phrases: Help! police, doctor, hospital, I am at…, phone, fire

Basic Words and Phrases for Planning
• Numbers, today, tomorrow, days of the week, months, more/less, directions (right/left/straight/up/down)

• Table, chair, check-in, elevator, stairs, restroom
• Transportation: bus, airport, driver, car, street

Here again, body language can aid you in conveying your message, and can often clarify misunderstandings. Holding up your fingers to symbolize numbers, motioning in a direction or pointing at an object can clarify a mispronounced word or adjust understanding for local interpretations. These gestures are likely innate to most (I am “hand talker”), but doing so politely along with use of the native language will show respect for the staff and their culture along with conveying the need at hand more clearly.

Decoding Jargon, Acronyms—and “Pastries”
During the planning process you are likely working with English-speaking sales or customer service manager contacts, and you may even have an interpreter traveling with you. But what happens when they are not available?

You could end up with a miscommunication like the one I had during an incentive trip in the Dominican Republic. While loading a catamaran, I noticed they were serving small cakes in place of the assorted breakfast pastries I had requested. Confused as to why these sweets were being dished out in the early morning hours, I spoke with a staff member. Through some hand motions and review of the BEO, we figured out what happened. The Spanish word “postre,” which was printed on the staff BEO copy, is very similar to the English word “pastry.” Postre is the Spanish word for dessert. While my meeting specifications listed pastries, when they reached the chef, the word was interpreted as postres. Hence the little cakes. Although this word flip did earn me some odd looks from attendees, not a single postre went to waste. They were delicious.

The meetings and events world is full of industry-specific jargon and acronyms. Having the translation of key components of your everyday on-site experience will help you provide clear direction to attendees and staff.

I know, that’s a lot to commit to memory for one program, but creating a cheat sheet for you and your staff can be a useful addition to your on-site materials. If you are interested in my full personal (proofread) English/Spanish cheat sheet, leave a comment below.