Barriers of communication while travelling full time
Barriers of communication around the world
Barriers of communication: Top o’the morning to ya, lovely people. We have moved from Negombo near the capital of Sri Lanka, down to the south coast of the island. We first stayed for two nights at the accommodation we had booked for two weeks, and are now in another apartment closer to the beach.
Barriers of communication: Our experience
When we arrived at the house we had booked, a three-bedroom house next to a paddy field, we were told that there was a “small problem”- that they had double booked the property after two nights. This, they said, was ‘no problem’ as they had another place nearer the beach, so we could go and stay there.
Hmm. We were already raw from the world’s most horrendous journey from Thailand to Sri Lanka, on Christmas Eve (our accommodation ‘double booked’ then too), and were not in the mood to be messed with again. We said we’d look at the beach property and decide then.
We asked for the WiFi password (I had messaged ahead to say that WiFi was essential for my work and to please ensure that it was turned on when we arrived) and were told that because we’d had a fairly last minute booking (two days prior) they hadn’t had time to get the router, but that it would be here in the morning.
We then found out that the couple renting the house out actually lived in it, and that we would be sharing the house with them.
Barriers of communication: The effects
We are finding the lack of direct and straightforward communication probably the most difficult thing about travel. Each country has its own way and style of conversing, involving varying amounts of honesty and local etiquette and social codes, and all manner of things that you have to crack before really understanding what people are saying.
This has a big effect on managing expectations- coming from a fairly straight-talking country where people are used to paying for a service and then receiving that service, it is hard to accept that what you sign up for might not reflect what actually happens in reality. This is especially hard when renting very budget accommodation when we aim for the absolute basics, and then even those are a battle to actually get.
We had more palaver with the couple renting out the property after they turned up at 6.55am this morning, and also forgot to tell us that a) we wouldn’t have any water- not hot, not cold, nothing- this morning, that b) there are frequent power cuts, which we were experiencing and c) the ‘WiFi’ was a limited data package that had already run out.
Our capacity for patience was already pretty huge to be honest, after spending 24/7 with three kids for the past 7 years, but it is definitely being stretched during this trip.
Barriers of communication: The big 7.
There seem to be around seven factors involved in communication- always, but they are exacerbated when you travel. I’ve found it helpful to identify them as I think it gives me more perspective and patience when interacting with people. The factors that I bear in mind are:
- The honesty and integrity of the person you are speaking with. Wherever you are in the world you’ll find honest people with good intentions; those who might give in to temptation when presented with an opportunity to benefit themselves at the expense of others, and those who will outright look to rip people off. It is easier to identify in your own country because you’re used to a baseline ’normal’. In other countries you don’t know what to expect so it’s hard to figure out if people are being genuinely friendly/ honest or if they are suss.
- The event. For example, WiFi not being available.
- Your expectations. In this case, the Booking.com listing said there would be WiFi, so I thought there would be WiFi. After safety it is the #1 thing we look for in a rental, because I have to have it to work. I’m also from the UK where a) accessing WiFi isn’t a big deal and b) we are used to accurate descriptions and c) we are used to British business standards, so my baseline expectation is that when a rental listing says WiFi, there will be WiFi.
- Your interpretation of the event. i.e., we have been lied to and that several things that we were told about the rental are not true; this gets interpreted further as being disrespectful.
- Their interpretation of the event. To give some context, the area we are currently staying in was affected by the tsunami, so restoring WiFi cables isn’t possible for most people. Properties are being rented out unfinished because people need the income. People here don’t work online so there is a different view on the importance of WiFi. Everyone around here has limited 4G data packages so that is normal to them. Also, we are white and the general perception is that white people have pretty much unlimited money so they may not understand why aren’t just at one of the big hotels.
- Social customs with regards to speech. “Saving face”, oh my life. This is something I still can’t get my head around. It roughly translates to the idea that people won’t admit they made a mistake or that they can’t do something for you. For example: in shops if you ask for something and they don’t have it, they will say “tomorrow!” You can go back for a million tomorrows and it won’t be there, but they will always insist that it will be there “tomorrow”. It also means you have to hear excuses like “you booked quite last minute so we are not ready”, “booking.com made a mistake and double booked you” (we’ve heard this twice), “the government cuts off the water in the morning and I only just found out about it” (for real, the landlady said this this morning and she’s owned the house for 10 years) and “we didn’t mean unlimited WiFi, it just says WiFi, not how much.” It’s exhausting.
- Language barriers. If you’ve managed to make it through the rest of the layers of communication, this is where you’ll inevitably get stung. Even if there has been a genuinely unavoidable event and they haven’t twisted the truth- you still probably won’t understand their explanation and they won’t understand your predicament.
So that’s something that we are navigating at the moment. Once you understand how a culture works with regards to language and communication, living there becomes easier- but this could take years.
For us it is particularly frustrating at the moment because we stay places just long enough to understand a bit, and then we move on. We are thinking of heading back to a more familiar country after our next stop (India) to give our brains and portable WiFi routers and patience a bit of respite, because fighting for the basics (water, electricity) isn’t fun.
Barriers of communication: The silver lining
I do think that long-term, these kinds of experiences are invaluable. Assuming that everyone is or should be the same as each other is one of the most damaging things about our global society today, with many factions trying to force others to change to be one identical unit. There is room for everyone and there is certainly room in everyone for growth of character and grace, patience and understanding.
If we hadn’t been forced to book onward tickets from Bali to Thailand at Singapore airport due to miscommunication, we wouldn’t have been with the amazing charity that we visited at Christmas time, which is when they do incredible festive things for the children they look after and their local community. My mum wouldn’t have gone on a medical outreach and identified a girl who wasn’t getting the care she needed, who is now safely in treatment at the local hospital.
If we hadn’t had our accommodation cancelled on Christmas Eve, we wouldn’t have met lovely new friends and had such an amazing Christmas with them, or learned about local charities and culture.
If we hadn’t had these inconveniences in our current apartments we wouldn’t have spent so long talking to our landlords and discovering that the woman’s family business was wiped out in the tsunami, or that the partner’s sister and her children were swept away in a devastating mudslide in June this year. The barriers of communication, like anything, can be used as a lesson.
As irritating and genuinely inconvenient as it is, looking for the silver linings is probably the biggest lesson we’ve had on our travel journey, and it’s one that I hope we continue to remember for a long time to come.
But just one thing- if you don’t sell ginger biscuits, and you’re not going to stock ginger biscuits, ever, please just say so. Hope cannot live without biscuits, after all.
Some communication resources we find helpful (also check out our series on respectful parenting):