January 29, 2007

Cultural differences: Communication

One day after lunch, when I was sitting on the terraza with our housekeeper (yes, it was long ago), our handyman/yardman Carlos (yes, it was the good old days), and El Jefe, I called a Honduran-American friend. The conversation went like this:
LG: Hi E! It's (La Gringa). Do you want to come over for dinner on Friday night?

E: Sure, what are you having?

LG: You are in luck! We're having filet mignon and homemade ice cream for dessert.

E: Great! What time?

LG: About 7 p.m.

E: Okay, sounds good. I'll bring a bottle of wine.

LG: Okay! We'll see you then. Bye!

E: Bye!
I hung up, looked at my phone and it said 56 seconds. Cheque! Menos de un minuto. (Check! Under a minute.) In Honduras, cheque means okay, I understand, I agree, or accomplished as in checked off the list.

I looked up to see three astonished faces. I burst out laughing. I knew exactly what they were thinking. How could I have possibly called, greeted, given information, confirmed the time, and said goodbye in less than one minute, they wondered?

A book that I have, The Hispanic Way, shows the following diagram of speech patterns among the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking. I get a chuckle every time I see it because it is so true!

The path of communication, English and Spanish

Actually, if I were to draw the diagram, I would put a few more angles, some curves, and one or two loops back to the beginning.

While opening and closing pleasantries are nice (after all, I'm from Texas where some of the friendliest people in the world live), there is something to be said for clarity as well. Sometimes I leave a conversation not knowing if I have received an answer or not. Often I am quite sure that I have received two conflicting answers.

The author of the book provides this real life quote as "the ultimate in exaggeration, but still illustrative of the Hispanic way of conveying information":

"Suppose you see them, tell them I am here, but if not, not; you may not actually see them, but talk to them on the telephone perhaps, or send a message by someone else and if not on Wednesday, well then on Tuesday or Monday, if you have the car you could run over and choose your day and say you saw me, you met me on the station, and I said, if you had some means of sending them a message or you saw them, that I might come over, on Friday, say, or Saturday at the end of the week, say Sunday. Or not. If I come there I come, but if not, we shall see, so that supposing you see them . . . ."

This was to say, "If you go over to see them on Wednesday tell them I have arrived and will come at the end of the week."
Nowhere is the difference more apparent than the Honduran television call in shows. The callers often ramble on for so long the the host, guests, and probably even the caller have completely forgotten what the caller's question was by the time he finishes his monologue.

Oh, by the way, the entire Hispanic way of speaking is out the window when someone is calling you from their cellphone! No pleasantries or chitchat here. The conversation is right down to the point because of the high cost of cellphone calls. In fact, it's not rare to hear "I don't have minutes, call me back," at which point (on your minutes) they then revert to the Hispanic way and have all the time in the world to chitchat.

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