Communicating in a Foreign Culture: It’s Not Just About Words

woman with bowl on head

Before we came to Nicaragua, we knew we would have to learn to communicate in Spanish, but we didn’t realize that we’d need to learn a whole new set of hand gestures for communicating here.  For example, no one shakes their head to indicate “no.” Maybe because people carry baskets, bowls, or bundles of firewood on their heads while they walk around or stand talking to others, they indicate “no” by wagging a raised index finger. It looks like scolding in English. (Notice that the woman in the picture doesn’t have a hand up to hold the bowl.  People also don’t use their hands to hold on if they are carrying a baby while riding on the back of a motorcycle, or eating oranges while perched on top of a moving bus or truck.  Americans who try to imitate natives often have fatal accidents.)

Another gesture we had to learn was the sign for “come here.”  It is the strangest gesture, from our perspective, because it is opposite the American hand up sweeping the air toward yourself. Instead, turn the hand down and flex the fingers only, as if sweeping a few crumbs together on a table.  If you really want someone to come right away, exaggerate the gesture, pump your whole arm down repeatedly while you wiggle your fingers.

We still struggle not to think it offensive when someone flattens their hand palm down and pushes toward us as if to stay “Stop! Go away.” in our past life. Here, it means something more like “Excuse me a minute; my phone is ringing.”

Once I figured this out, I started wondering if I was unknowingly saying or doing anything rude, so I asked.  Apparently my thumbs up is ok. Handshakes and fist bumps are also the same in both cultures.

There is a local vocabulary, as well.  For example, no one here uses the word muchacho, the word we learned for boy and girl. Here, you would commonly say chico or even chavalo, a word that our dictionary says is offensive and means street urchin.  One day, someone privately advised Frank when he used what he thought was a common word that turns out to be offensive here—a word he had learned in school.

We’re getting used to other cultural differences, some of which we really like.  For example, in a restaurant, no one ever brings the bill until we ask for it. We could sit and linger over an empty glass—or order more—all evening if we had the time.

This is a small country with only 6 million people, but they seldom move from the city where they were born, and extended families live together or near each other.  There is a strong regional identity, and even stronger family identity.  If one person in a family is offended, the whole clan is often at war with the other, a convention that can have long-term negative consequences for church attendance or neighborhood relations.  On the other hand, if someone is your friend, the whole family would gladly take you in and feed or house you if you needed help.

Our friends in Granada continue to email us or use a few minutes of their precious phone saldo to call and tell us “thank you” for our service there last year.  We hope we are communicating our love for people here.  I come home from church every Sunday with lipstick on my right shoulder, because women commonly embrace and “air kiss” beside their right cheeks in greeting.  At five feet, five inches, I am a giant here, and so they end up kissing my shoulder.

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5 thoughts on “Communicating in a Foreign Culture: It’s Not Just About Words

  1. Thumbs up is good in China and Hong Kong too. And you summon people with the hands down and moving fingers the same way. Fun to read your post and compare. The world is a fascinating place and so diverse and so much the same in so many ways! Have a great week.

    Sent from my iPad

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    • Then there’s flagging down a taxi: point down to the ground where you want it to stop and shake your hand. If you wave around up in the air, no one will stop.

      On Tuesday, March 17, 2015, Frank and Ellen's Mission wrote:

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  2. I hope you don’t mind me stalking your blog…my son is serving in your mission. It was so nice to read about daily life and the cultural differences in Nicaragua. I live for Mondays, when we get our weekly emails:) best day of the week! May God bless you and all of our missionaries!

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