I've been finding myself working in a third language lately. That is, much of my day is not in the language of my current location, and not in my native language, but in a third. Yesterday, I transformed my brain to interact in Korean. The day before, I had to use Chinese and the culture that accompanies the language. I switch cultures, a necessary condition of being understood.
Culture always comes before language. In other words, without learning the culture, vocabulary and grammar doesn't get you where you need to go. No matter how many words you've studied or how complex your clauses in another language, if you are saying or doing the wrong thing for the culture, your listener will be confused. Language is meant for communication and if the culture and language aren't compatible, then you've already lost.
Language is rarely meant to be taken literally. The answer to 'what's up?' doesn't require looking to the ceiling. 'Running to the store' is usually done in a car. The phrase 'Nice meeting you' can be a signal to end conversations because the meeting was anything but pleasant.
Culture switching is my favorite muscle to develop. I find myself interacting with an array of different cultures. When speaking English with a non-native speaker, the best method for connection is to adapt to the culture of the person you're talking to. I believe that this is essential when dealing with someone from another culture.
I've seen people go to other countries and completely ignore the fact that they should be acting differently than they do back home. They refuse to attempt to use the local language, act silly in the eyes of the locals, and don't acknowledge that they are guests in a new land.
If the guilty party looks like me, I am paranoid that the locals will associate him with me. I sometimes feel embarrassed or apologetic. I want to suggest that he learn a few phrases and try to blend in like a local. I'm not suggesting that they need to perfect the local language, but I think everyone should try, and show the locals the respect they deserve. Have fun, learn something new, and make a friend in the process!