Why Smiling is Vital When Speaking a Foreign Language

I’ve heard people say that Americans smile too much, and that it feels phony. For sure, here in Europe, I’ve discovered that people are generally more reserved.

I live in the Swabian region of Germany, and the Swabians in particular have a reputation for being gruff. At my local supermarket (Edeka),  for example, going shopping feels like a hockey match. Older women rush to a position, and if you’re unlucky enough to get there first, they practically hip check you out of the way, without an apology or even a second thought.

As my neighbor once told me, “The German supermarket is a violent experience.”

A genuine smile is probably the quickest way to bridge a cultural gap.

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When I first began practicing my German around town, I was shy, painfully aware of my shortcomings, and all in all not having a good time. In a lot of ways, I felt like I was matching the demeanor of these folks – brusque, curt, and a little grouchy. And it was clear that people I was talking to found the conversation just as unpleasant as I did.

Then one day I had a crazy idea:


I tend to laugh a lot and tell jokes and smile easy. It feels more natural to me to smile than to be straight faced. So I first started smiling and waving to people in my neighborhood, even though many of them tended to treat my family like a weird science experiment, the weird American people that no one knew anything about. After I got the ball rolling, though, everyone started smiling and waving back.

Even my wife noticed. “No one says hi to me,” she said, “but they always say hi to you.”

Then I started smiling while speaking with people.

Me at the bakery: “I’d like a piece of pizza?”

Woman behind the counter: “Sure. Do you want me to warm it up in the oven?”

Me: “Uh…one piece?”

Woman: “No. Do you…”

Me: “Oh! Yes, please.”

And then I smiled at my mistake and kind of laughed, and she laughed too, and it wasn’t a big deal. Her eyes lit up, in fact, probably because we were actually communicating, not reading from a script or going through the motions.

This happens all  the time now. These Swabians, it turns out, aren’t as gruff as I thought. Sure, they were initially, but for most people I meet, it takes literally 1 second after a genuine smile to make them pleasant.

Also remember that people you encounter, especially strangers, are slightly uncomfortable during an exchange. The employee behind the counter is focused on getting your order right and ensuring customer satisfaction (sometimes), so if you throw him a curveball by not speaking the language natively, you’re putting him in a potentially uncomfortable spot. A good smile puts him at ease and lets him know that we’re all cool here.

One warning: Don’t be phony. Even when you’re making a conscious effort to smile, you have to really smile. There’s a little bit of finesse involved, but for me, it’s as simple as thinking of the other person as a friend.

That’ll probably work for you too. Because if you’re the kind of person who wants to learn other languages, you’re probably the kind of person who wants to make friends with people from all over the world, and you’re not going to do that by going around with a frown and a sour look on your face.

At least, that didn’t work for me.


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