Cross-cultural communication is actually a distinct academic discipline, sometimes referred to as intercultural communication. It's a field that cuts across a wide sector of human affairs -- anything from tourism to diplomacy, public health to international finance. It examines how cultural background influences communication, decision-making, conflict resolution, the sharing of personal information and so forth.
But cross-cultural communication is also something that most of us deal with every day, whether it's interacting with a taxi driver from Ethiopia or a dry cleaner from Korea. When language difficulties arise, informal sign language can be helpful. Travelers abroad often resort to that -- say, by miming the action of eating in order to ask for directions to a restaurant. (But beware of local customs and practices, as certain gestures can mean vastly different things in different cultures. In many cultures, holding hands, especially between people of the same gender, does not imply a romantic or sexual relationship. In the U.S., meanwhile, you might tap your temple to compliment someone on an intelligent comment; but in China, this gesture means that you think someone is crazy, equivalent to the American expression of pointing to one's head and moving one's finger in a circle.)
A phrase book or dictionary can be equally helpful in cross-cultural situations, but if you're communicating with someone online, then you have a plethora of tools available. Although a service like Google Translate may lack the precision of a seasoned human translator, such websites can provide a good rough translation between many languages, opening doors of communication that were previously closed.
Finally, there are many, many well-established sign languages, with American Sign Language being one well-known variant. But there are hundreds of others to be found among the world's various ethnic and linguistic groups. There's still some question about whether non-human species can learn sign language and help bridge inter-species communication gap. Washoe, a chimpanzee who died in 2007, appeared to have learned rudimentary sign language, but some researchers disputed the findings. Even so, her experience set off a wave of interest in teaching chimps sign language.
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Being in a foreign country can be intimidating. But rest assured that you can still communicate many things through your facial expressions. Looks like smiles, frowns, scowls, surprise, shock and anger are almost universal across all cultures. Try to use these when you're traveling abroad and you don't know the language. A smile goes a long way no matter where you are.
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