Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Are Spanish-Speakers from Venus and English-Speakers from Mars?

One more item of interest from Pink's February/March 2009 issue.

John Gray--familiar to almost everyone for his work on "Mars and Venus"--writes about gender differences in workplace communication. He cites this example:

"At the copy machine, a woman might say, 'This thing isn't working.' On 'Venus,' that's a way to let off steam. Another woman might sympathize with her. On 'Mars,' however, the man is thinking, 'Why is she telling me this? Does she want me to fix it?' He misinterprets her statement as a sign of weakness."

This made me think of all the miscommunications that can happen in the community based on cultural differences.

In the past, some students who worked at the Refugee Center showed in their reflections that they were upset by the communication style of the main Latina counselor there. Basically they felt that this counselor was "mean" with some of the clients. I know this counselor well. Believe me, she is not "mean," and all the Refugee Center's clients hold her in the highest possible esteem. But she is direct. And frank. Those are cultural differences that some of our students can misinterpret.

In the schools, I have also read some students' reflections saying how they don't like the way the teachers treats the students. While I haven't witnessed first hand the communications they are referring to, knowing that all the teachers we work with are highly respected individuals in the Latino community, I suspect that this again is owed to cultural differences.

Students can easily become confused. We tell them that they must be polite and respectful in the community. For them, that translates into "May I please have your attention please." Or avoiding conflict at all costs. Or "I hate to bother you, but could I please take just a moment of your time to ask you about something that has been on my mind but I just haven't known how to bring it up...."

Sometimes, in the Spanish language, long, drawn-out, rather Baroque constructions are demonstrations of politeness.

Yet other times, direct and firm communication is a show of respect and closeness.

These are some of the hardest things to teach, and some of the hardest things for our students to recognize as actual miscommunications. They understood the words, so they think they understood.

It even happens to me.

My friend from Honduras, for example, says, "Me vas a regalar X." That sounded so rude to me every time I heard it! Then I went to Costa Rica and heard people say that all the time. It was not rude, it was just a common expression. I could have interpreted that phrase as a character flaw--rudeness--of my friend. Instead, it was a cultural difference in communication style.


  1. Agreed! Here in Ecuador since the first day my host mom always "demands"- "Ven a tomar algo" when it's time for dinner/coffee (she doesn't ask "Quieres tomar algo?"). But this has just shown me that she's being just like my mother would be at home, very direct in telling me to go eat/drink something. In close relationships it's more common to hear "demands" like this that are exchanged among close friends or family.

  2. Thanks so much for your comment, Carolina. I think it's really in study abroad contexts that students figure these things out. And yes, I probably boss around my own kids just like that. Ha

  3. Come to Spain and you'll be demanded to do everything... :) because "Siéntate ahí" might not just mean to sit down, but a close and dear suggestion (maybe that place is more comfortable)...instead of "Si quieres, te puedes sentar ahí"

    Carolyn I hope you are enjoying Ecuador a lot!!