As you know, I am always bridging between Latin America and the UK. And, although generalisations must be used carefully and sensitively, they can help us shed light onto the two ends of the cultural bridge so that we can bring them closer and find the ‘happy middle’ where we understand one another a little bit better.
In addition – and as you have read in these notes many times before–, languages do not exist in a vacuum. Conveying messages from one language into another entails converting linguistic codes that are embedded in a particular culture at a given context and moment in time.
This culture is comprised of many elements, one of which is body language.
Over the years, I have found that the following features are key to both understand and mediate spatial interactions among people from differing cultures:
- Eye contact & Touching
So, do you speak body Spanish?
Here is how these four key features usually appear in Latin America in contrast with what is commonly seen in the UK.
Latin Americans tend to be more comfortable with being physically close to each other. As a result, they tend to stand close to the person they are talking to or would happily sit close to another person on a bench, in a car, etc.
Differences in spatial proximity are such that, for example, in the English-speaking world when two people are quarrelling, they tend to invade the other’s personal space and ‘shout in their face’; whereas, in Latin America, when a person is mad at another, they tend to walk away and, even, turn their backs at them.
Eye Contact & Touching
Latin Americans seem to fully enjoy making eye contact, not only when conversing but also when out and about. No ogling intended – It is simply a way of acknowledging the other person, similar to an English person courteous nodding.
Also, it is not uncommon for Latin Americans to touch the person they are talking to briefly on the arm or shoulder in order to catch their attention.
Latin Americans do love a compliment and compliment you they will. Anything from your general looks and demeanour to your clothes and perfume is usually fair game in the interest of gallantry and appreciation.
Most times, there is no hidden agenda and compliments are just that, compliments.
Handshakes – and the Covid-approved elbow and/or fist knocks we have grown used to – are the norm in professional settings on both sides of the Atlantic.
However, Latin Americans quite frequently greet each other with a kiss (a single kiss, usually on the right cheek) in professional settings; and they certainly do so in their personal and private interactions, especially between men and women. In some countries, like Argentina and Uruguay, it is even common for men to greet each other with a kiss and a pat on the back.
Understandably so, when communicating with a foreign person, people tend to focus almost exclusively on words and verbal expression. However, even if you (or your interpreter) were perfectly correct and clear in the foreign language, you could still be communicating the exact opposite without even knowing it.
Remember, verbal expression accounts for only 45% of what is communicated. What are you saying with the remaining 55%?
Verbal expression accounts for only 45% of what is communicated. What are you saying with the remaining 55%? Here is how spatial interactions usually occur in Latin America in contrast with what is commonly seen in the UK.