[Author's note: This text is written from the perspective of German communication behaviour, which is also prevalent in varying degrees in other Northern European cultures. Therefore, depending on where you're from, some of the points made, in particular in the checklists, may not readily apply to your situation.]

Latin America: Not as European as Europeans think it is

by Alexia Petersen

There is an old oft-told anecdote about a European businessman who, preparing for an impending assignment in Brazil, made great efforts to learn Spanish, only to arrive in Rio de Janeiro and discover that the local language was in fact Portuguese. Such a blunder sounds almost too elementary to be believed for our latter day globalised sensibilities. However, as a simple example of how false assumptions can result directly in some measure of miscommunication, our anecdote is not too far off the mark.

As quickly as one is want to reference the diversities encompassed within "European culture", equal distinction must be made between the cultural individualities one tends to lump together as "Latin America". Brazil, for instance, is regularly the only example singled out for its different behaviour from the rest of Spanish-speaking South America because its mother country is Portugal rather than Spain.

However, within the limited scope of this article, what interests us is not an analysis of the undeniable similarities between "typical" Latin American and Spanish/Portuguese communication behaviour. As familiar as their temperament may be to Europeans by way of the fiery Spanish "type", South Americans are not Spanish or Portuguese, in the same way North Americans are not British, and the Québécois are not French. From his perspective halfway across the globe, the European looking for a "European link" to bridge the cultural gap must be careful not to over-emphasise the European heritage. The danger is to overlook other uniquely different developmental processes that shaped cultural orientations quite different from those of "Old Europe".

While Latin Americans display distinct Romanic-Mediterranean characteristics to no small degree in their communication style and behaviour (such as emotionalism, relationship orientation, mañana tendencies, and "flexible" truths), one cannot ignore the cultural baggage acquired along a fundamentally different developmental path. Without a doubt, the language and appearance of South America - especially in international business circles which are dominated by the European-oriented elite social classes - are noticeably Spanish. However, other primary conditions that shaped distinct South American communication behaviour cannot be overlooked - mainly the immigration experience within a vast, wild and exhilarating landscape set in relative geographic isolation. Therein, the native cultures would also profoundly shape the emerging New World life of Latin America, in contrast to North America, where the threads of native cultures today are all but invisible in the fabric of mainstream cultural identity. European language and heritage do not so much dominate as comprise only two strokes on a much larger South American cultural canvas.

As cultural beings we cannot avoid looking for what is culturally similar to us for the simple reason that it affords us a sense of emotional comfort. We need this security to counter-balance the inevitable differences we come up against in order to effectively work in the new environment. This need to psychologically "connect" often leads especially those from "mother countries" to over-emphasise heritage and under-estimate the distinct dissimilarities of "offspring" cultures that have been shaped by quite different developmental experiences.

For example, where relationships are not automatic via bloodlines and family ties, and communities are created from surrogate families out of a need for mutual survival and support in geographic isolation, such cultural priorities develop quite different communication behaviour to facilitate successful relationship-building. This is already a significantly different variation of the Spanish/Portuguese value of relationship-building.

Where making and keeping human contact is a basic matter of survival in a wild and profoundly lonely landscape, optimism, exuberance and exaggeration signal a surprisingly basic prerequisite of relationship- and trust-building: likability. In an open landscape where physical and psychological space between oneself and one's neighbour can be vast, the measure of "friendship" and alliances needs to be more casually and variously defined. A "friend" can therefore be any person with whom one has established a relationship. The precise degree of that friendship is qualified to distinguish a "good friend" from a "close friend" and again from a "very best friend", etc. As it is for North Americans, the art of conversation didn't evolve in intellectual salons like those of the "old countries" but with strangers. Whether eloquent or bantering, big or small, talk is a veritable leap of faith to bridge the emotional gap between two strangers and establish a basis for potential human relations.

The German businessman going to South America or North America should therefore be aware of a fundamentally different value in relationship-building and expect to engage in a distinctly more fluid communication style that initiates relationship-building.

This similarity between Latin America and North America does not, of course, ignore a crucial difference between their cultural heritage beyond the scope of this text to cover. Frank Acuff (How to Negotiate Anything with Anyone Around the World, 1993) points out how, as conquerors who imposed their traditional systems (in particular hierarchical power structures) in South America, the Spanish and Portuguese saw themselves as part of the mother country and not as colonisers or settlers fleeing the oppressions of the Old World, as was the case with North Americans. The resulting social and economic style was based on the old manorial style of Europe, especially among the ruling classes, resulting in an indirect communication style very similar to that of Africans and east Asians, designed to preserve the self-esteem (or "face") of the higher ranks. The flat hierarchy of North America, on the other hand, fostered a strong individualist orientation that grew out of the struggle to shape one's own destiny in an ostensibly classless context.

In deference to rank, therefore, communication behaviour in especially Spanish-speaking Latin America can be both disarmingly warm and casual between strangers, and yet formal and vague in a business context depending on who you are speaking to and the particular issue at hand. Expect, therefore, subordinates in the company to be less forthcoming with criticism or disagreements, or about what is or is not possible, with the result that they will often say what they think you want to hear.

Also, given the interpersonal relationship orientation in Latin America, be prepared for a communication style that prioritises the human transaction first above legal or technical terms of the business relationship. As in Spain and Portugal, very stiff and formal communication behaviour, as well as an insistence on factual and legalistic "rights" in the business relationship will only throw up unnecessary barriers and compromise a natural willingness to empathise with Europeans.

I'm reminded of the many layers of culture clash and miscommunication that has inspired so many laughs in the recent American hit movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which should be requisite viewing for any student of intercultural communication dynamics. Its runaway international box office success attests to more than the appeal of basic cross-generational and cross-cultural issues between parents and children. We see in the father's unquestioned conviction that every word, including kimono, can be traced back to Greek roots. The ensuing verbal gymnastics it takes for him to make the leap to himonas (the Greek word meaning "winter", as in "because in winter people wear long coats to keep warm"), while making for great comedic stuff, is nevertheless symbolic of how far, and forced, the jump is in reality to make the connection to the inherited culture.

There is, in truth, a little bit of the father in all of us. As cultural beings, we assume deep down that no matter what environment we're in, but especially where shared language or heritage exist, the style and substance of our communication remains essentially uncompromised. But as the movie shows, the very relationship that is quite substantially reinforced by family and blood ties, shared cultural heritage, and at least two common languages should nonetheless teeter constantly on the brink of a messy collapse. Contrast that, however, to the compatible communication style between the daughter and her boyfriend. Not only does each trace a different cultural heritage, but both have departed in significant degree from their "inherited" communication behaviour.

Competent and effective intercultural communication benefits from the natural springboard of shared roots wherever they exist. However, in the movie's relationships as in reality, shared cultural roots between a parent and "offspring" cultures are no guarantee for compatible communication channels. Consider, for instance, the analogy to real parents and their offspring: how much of a child's character is inherited and how much is acquired through its own unique life is also a subject of studies. Ultimately, a truer appreciation of "New World" communication behaviour and its inherent cultural values must look at the conditions that irreversibly altered them, creating in the process a uniquely individual identity.

Alexia Petersen, April 2003

Intercultural Communication Checklists
Latin America

[Author's note: This text is written from the perspective of German communication behaviour, which is also prevalent in varying degrees in other Northern European cultures. Therefore, depending on where you're from, some of the points made, in particular in the checklists, may not readily apply to your situation.]

The checklists are also available in PDF format, for easy viewing and printing.

The checklists below are meant to guide you to a smoother, more communicative interaction with Latin Americans. However, these lists are the products of intercultural communication competency and not an end in itself. Knowing how to communicate effectively with other cultures follows from understanding why they behave the way they do. Our approach is to provide you with a framework of cultural core values which impact behaviour and communication styles in the Latin American cultures (and other cultures with similar core concepts) at the national level. This knowledge is the foundation for developing those skills necessary to bridge communication gaps between cultures where the distance between two sets of cultural assumptions is the greatest. Our aim is to enable readers to develop intercultural communication skills to a point where they can eventually create their own checklists. That is why, in addition to the standard Do's, Don'ts and Be Aware lists, and a compilation of small talk topics, we provide a more vital 5th list of guidelines to help readers to actively apply the intercultural communication "vocabulary". Against a solid framework of knowledge, this is effective "learning by doing".

Before reading these checklists, make sure you read

Points to avoid

  1. Given the mañana syndrome (roughly translated by "Why do today what can be put off until tomorrow?"), expect business deadlines to take a lower priority than those of obligations to family and close friends. Therefore realise that pushing, and persistent legalistic reasoning or arguments based on your "technical" rights and needs, will likely achieve nothing but mutual discomfort and embarrassment. Whether or not a deadline is met may well depend on the strength of the relationship!

  2. Don't be insulted by interruptions, which will be frequent and get you off track from business. Keep in mind that in their cultural context, their creative input is a sign of bonding and a willingness to make a personal contribution to your interaction. Simply be prepared for conversation to be a wilder ride than you would experience with goal- and issues-oriented Northern European clients and associates.

  3. Try not to react suspiciously to what you might perceive to be exaggerated warmth from perfect strangers. Latin Americans, especially Brazilians, strive to be liked and to please others. If you are stiff and formal, what may be respectful behaviour intended by you, could well have the opposite off-putting and disorienting effect for them. You may be initially uncomfortable with Latin tactility, but learn to gracefully accept their warmth as a sign of goodwill.

  4. Observe hierarchical levels in meetings or elsewhere. Communication behaviour among individuals in a group clearly reveals their individual social rank, especially in a business environment (e.g. who speaks first, who speaks most, who speaks after whom, who says what, etc.) . Don't try to force egalitarianism by encouraging "open" issues-based discussion.

  5. Don't push your technical "rights" or legal reasoning if it means compromising the other person's self-esteem. "Face" has a much higher value for relationship-oriented cultures than an over-meticulous observation of items in a contract. One's obligations to the interpersonal relationship always requires more thought and caution before action than a strict adherence to rules and empirical facts.

Points to be aware of

  1. The human relationship orientation and high context nature of Latin American communication means, you may miss some of the subtleties that exist for promoting social harmony between individuals and groups. Take particular notice of body language and what is not said in conversation or how something is said.

  2. Expressiveness, exaggeration, and even passionate discussions are typical characteristics of the Latin American communication style. To time-pressed and direct-speaking Northern Europeans this may appear to be an irritating manner of not getting to the point. Such a speaking style, in fact, signifies personal enthusiasm and commitment and an effort at building personal relations. This is fundamentally different from the dispassionate truth-seeking argumentative style so common in Northern European communication behaviour. Also, as in all hierarchical cultures, eloquence is highly valued as it reflects one's status and position and is considered a sign of one's intellectual prowess and wisdom.

  3. The majority of Latin American countries place a high value on hierarchy and rank. Therefore, there is very little direct or implied criticism of persons of higher rank, or face-to-face questioning of authority. Expect indirect communication from lower ranking associates and "flexible truths" which protect the higher ranked individual's self-esteem.

  4. Even in those that are considered relatively high-competitive, Latin American countries still place a high priority on quality of life and relations. A very direct, purely problem-oriented argumentative communication style is perceived as destructive and leading to disharmony.

Points to do

  1. Constant tracking and monitoring of the follow-up stages of a project or operation is necessary. The value Latin Americans give to establishing and building relationships naturally brings a high level of enthusiasm and energy to, for example, the outset of a project. For especially agenda-oriented Northern Europeans, however, how much of this momentum is actually carried over into action can prove to be disappointing and frustrating, as projects can often be left unfinished or delayed. Organise the stages of your projects but allow for more time to task completion. Be prepared to exercise "hands on" control, but not be overbearing or domineering in your communication style. If you are the patron, aim for the manner of a "benevolent dictator".

  2. Think relationship before business. Allow more business time to be used for non-business activities, such as visiting local sites, accepting personal invitations to meals and home visits, etc. The basis of mutual trust on which business completely depends is being simpatico. You have a greater chance on success if your counterpart feels you can be a loyal compadre and not just a business associate.

  3. Be more expressive in your gestures and body language. Smile and enjoy your host's hospitality. Be prepared to reveal more about yourself than you would to your clients in your home culture (e.g. Germany). Inject more emotion and personal character into presentations. An effective general rule would be: the dryer the statistical and technical description of business is, the more personality should be injected to compensate for it.

  4. Expect delays to be caused by the necessity to juggle options or assets due to lack of resources, or simply because one is not ready to act yet. The natural ebb and flow of life may not correspond to human-made schedules and deliveries. Sometimes one has to make adjustments to accommodate changes elsewhere.

    Similarly, expect meetings to be far-less agenda-based than you are used to. Life is not organised around a clock - certainly not when one takes into account personal relationships, opportunity, excitement - and certainly not to be interrupted by a call or a knock on the door. Expect any points to be discussed that seem opportune and as much time to be given an issue as the relationship between the parties deserves.

  5. A natural sense of courtesy, the high value of personal relationship, and the value of hierarchy means that Latin Americans will often say the things you want to hear. Keep in mind that truth is somewhat flexible and be prepared to check meaning through frequent summaries and repetition. Ask many different questions and check with several sources for a more realistic approximation of what is really meant and what you can actually expect.

Small Talk Topics

This list of small talk topics is an adapted and simplified version of the corresponding list for Spain (see our article on Spain).

Symbols: (++) very good topic, (+) good topic, (-) avoid topic, (--) bad topic.
  • Family and mutual acquaintances
  • Travel, leisure, holidays
  • Sport
  • Politics, current events and scandals
  • Wine and food
  • Job or profession
  • Money
  • Problems and difficulties

Becoming interculturally literate

  1. What previous (or typical) cross-cultural experience(s) have you had with Latin Americans where you did not initially consider a possible problem to be one of intercultural communication? Can you now re-evaluate the experience in an intercultural communication framework? How would you now act/react in the same situation?

  2. Can you identify other cultures that may exhibit similar behaviour or communication styles as the Latin Americans?

  3. Can you imagine other situations where Latin Americans may react negatively to something that is said or done, but which you consider normal?

  4. What other aspects of Latin American communication style and behaviour have you had experience with? What cultural values do you think are at the root?

  5. How do German communication style and behaviour in the same situation differ? What is the German value at the root?

  6. Isolate the areas of greatest difference between the German and Latin American communication behaviour and predict the most likely situations of misunderstandings you can expect to encounter in your professional field.

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