Friday, October 23, 2015

Communication Barriers

One of the many challenges that frequent travelers face is that of communication. Language barriers present obvious issues, especially if there is no general knowledge of the language. Hand gestures in one country that are common maybe considered rude and inappropriate in another. Mannerisms while communicating also vary across cultures, from personal space to eye contact, among many others. Over the past year, I have been figuring out how to navigate Colombian culture when it comes to communication. I thought I had a good grasp on it. Recently, I learned that I actually have a lot to learn...


For those of you that know me, you know that I'm a very animated talker. I use gestrues and talk with my hands like it's my job (and here it kind of is). I've found that since I started teaching English, these gestures have just gotten bigger and more pronounced. I even find myself explaining basic English concepts (like "listen" and "write") with my hands when talking with native English speaking friends. However, it seems that I have finally met my match.

Colombians are the champions of gesture use while talking. I'm talking above and beyond the use of hands. Lips are used to point out directions mid-sentence. A quick double tap of the throat signifies that the speaker has no money. A raising of the pinkie communicates that something is "poopy" or very expensive/nice. It's always an adventure talking with Colombians. On top of having spent the last year trying to master their spoken language, I've also been tasked with the learning of their gesture language. However, it is a grand day when you can finally point at something mid-sentence with your lips without missing a beat. Now that's true integration!


Personally, I have found that Colombians are direct in certain ways and then sometimes tend to skirt around certain issues or situations. For example, Colombians will not hesitate to inform you when they feel like you've put on some weight (or are losing too much). They are quick to point out any blemishes on your face (pimples) or legs (multitudes of bug bites). New hairstyles and clothing choices are immediately disected. While it is easy to be caught off guard by this type of directness, eventually it just becomes the norm. One may never fully become comfortable with it, but it becomes more tolerable.

However, one thing that I have found that Colombians struggle with (in my own personal experience) is being direct with someone when they have an issue or problema that needs solved. There have been times at my school where members of the administration have questioned why I was doing something the way I was doing it. Instead of coming directly to me to try and solve the issue, they instead go to my counterpart, who then comes to me. It has been a frustrating process to try and overcome. When issues arise, I am used to having that person discuss them with me directly. That has not always been the case here and it has taken a lot of adjusting to. I'm still struggling with this aspect of the Colombian culture, but am striving to overcome it and work with it for the next year.

Style of Expression

When asked to describe Colombians in one word, "loud" is normally the first one that pops into my head. This is not meant as a bad thing at all. However, anyone who has lived in a Colombian pueblo or city knows this to be true. From the raging music that continues well into the wee hours of the morning to screaming students in the classroom, one volumen level transcends through the land.

A perfect example of this is my 7 year old host "nephew" (my host mom's grandson), Mario. My room is located out back of the main house and when Mario is outside in front of the house, I can hear him clear as day. It doesn't get much better when he comes inside. One volume level for all settings. He will sometimes stand outside of my room and "talk" to me. My ears will normally be ringing by the end of a 2 minute conversation. But this raised volume doesn't signal that he's angry or upset - most of the time it is just the opposite. A raised voice normally signals that you are happy and in a great mood. Quite the opposite from the United States.

Another aspect of Colombian communication that has taken some time to get used to is the amount of physical contact there is. Greetings are made with a kiss on the cheek between opposite genders. Firm, healthy handshakes are exchanged between colleagues and good friends. Hugs are given out like candy at Halloween. None of this really bothers me - until it is done at school.

It is very common for students to give teachers hugs and kisses on the cheek as a way of greeting one another. You can imagine the shock and slight horror the first time a student attempted to greet me in this way. My American trained brain immediately turned to the side, positioning myself for the perfect side hug. Fortunately, all awkwardness was avoided as the student didn't seem to notice my sudden panic.

Adjusing to all of these chances in the way communiation is carried out here on the coast of Colombia has definitely given me a deeper understanding and appreciation for the culture here on the coast. I'm excited to return home in a year and incorporate some of my new found techniques (mainly the lip pointing) into my daily communications.