How many times do we end up wondering what the foreigners sat next to us are talking about? And how many times do we pay attention to the way their body language speaks to us?
When we do not understand what people are saying, looking at their gestures and intonation can be really helpful. But, more often than not, this can be incredibly misleading! Mannerisms tend to vary a lot from one nationality and language to the next. For instance, if two people get physically very close and touch each other (e.g. hand on the shoulder), they’re not necessarily as close as we might think they are.
Latinos generally become very intimate quite early on, whereas in other cultures, it is a sign of education to respect someone’s personal space (Japan, for example). That is generally because in colder places people are colder, while in warmer places people are literally warmer! According to several studies this difference is inherited from the hard or mild conditions of the land where ancestors had to live, which changed their way of thinking, living and interacting. A good example to show how conversations can differ between languages is by comparing a typical British conversation with a Spanish one.
In the UK people usually follow a series of written and oral customary rules before saying what they really want to say. They follow an introduction, a main body and a conclusion. This way of talking reflects a way of thinking, and aims at communicating what they want to say as effectively and politely as possible in as short a time as possible. Succinct, effective and polite. Finally, you’ll notice that tone of voice remains uniform almost the whole time and hands gestures are usually quite limited.
Spanish people, on the other hand, have a way of telling stories that might even sound quite confusing to non-Spanish speakers. Typically, when a Spanish person tells a story there are several digressions, as they get lost in the detail and add emphasis, emotion and pathos. Some parts can be very quick, with others slow and elongated for effect (as in “Hooola” and “no me diiigas!”). Finally, the pitch of the voice is varied with high peaks moving to low from one word to the next. It can be a rollercoaster! Listening to some Spanish people talking you might mistakenly think they were having so much fun, or that something terrible had just happened. In fact, they might just have been talking about the groceries! Check out this video for a light hearted take.
As an Italian girl, living in Germany it took a while for me to appreciate that the question “How are you?” did not really mean that my interlocutor ACTUALLY wanted to know how I was doing; it was just a way of being nice. As a matter of fact, one of the first times I was asked how I was, I began recounting a funny story about what happened to me in the morning. The more I talked, the more the person I was talking to tried to find an excuse to cut the conversation and leave. In Italy we are expected to answer the “how are you” question with some real details about our lives. I really could not understand why the person I was talking to looked so uncomfortable!
Thereafter, I stuck to a simple “fine and you?” and, it worked much better! In Italy, chatting is part of our culture. Just think about the endless number of bars we have: perfect places to have a coffee and sit to talk for hours while looking at people walking by.
Finally, it is interesting to see that the way Italians speak can give a misleading impression to non-Italian listeners. I have always been quite surprised by the way foreigners interpret the way us Italians talk to each other. Many times I happened to have an Italian conversation in front of some English/French/German friends and they often believe to have witnessed a very bad argument rather than a normal conversation! That is probably because in Italy we speak very fast and loud and we use hand gestures to give a stronger sense of our true thinking. We are very emotional speakers and try to transmit everything we feel through words.
It is important to keep in mind that when we aim at learning a new language, grammar rules and pronunciation are not enough; it is necessary to take into account the cultural significance of what you’re saying as well.
That said, it is worth remembering that we should be very careful with stereotypes! It is easy to make the mistake of designating someone’s attitude based only on their nationality. Of course, a Latino can be just as distant as a Northern European and Northern European just as warm and friendly as a Latino!
Can you think of some examples that fit the Spanish/British comparison? Or occasions where you found the approach of a foreigner really unexpected? How do you usually deal with a social norm that does not follow “your rules”? Comment below – I’d love to know!