One week before heading to the field is a good time for a few warm up activities to become field-ready. My routine includes subscribing to RSS feeds for local news, learning to count to ten and speak a few common phrases, learning about local sports teams and other conversation starters, and of course getting excited about new cuisine.
In addition to these cerebral preparations I like to remind myself of the correct body language and habits. Naturally in most rural settings our interactions with the community are through translators and the first impressions are much less about what we say and more about what we do.
A basic yet very important tip to remember is to use right and left hands correctly. The rules are simple. Use your right hand for anything that’s considered clean, and your left for anything that’s dirty. Beyond the symbolic meaning of each hand, this simple code of conduct serves as an effective health practice in places where clean running water is scarce. This also means you should not give or receive anything with your left hand.
To get into the habit of using your right and left hands distinctly, try going through your day as long as possible without washing your hands. You will soon treat your right hand with much respect and attention. You can also put an X on everyone’s left hand in the team and get into the habit together.
Once you get the hang of it, remember to support your right hand with the left when giving and receiving items, or shaking hands. Of course the gestures and practices vary considerably between regions and cultures, so make sure to look around and learn the right moves. You will be one step closer to becoming best buddies with the village elders!