Friday, May 24, 2013

Face first into the culture

We spent a lot of time talking about culture in the Cuso International training we took in Canada before moving to Honduras last year. The course facilitators cautioned us repeatedly that real cultural differences go much deeper than the clothing styles, language, food and general habits of a country that a foreigner first notices.
They were right. It’s the “soft culture” stuff you have to watch out for – the things you tend not to see until they trip you up.
For instance, I now recognize that I’m much too direct in my interactions with people here. I give people a quick hello and then bam, I'm on to whatever topic I'm there for. It wasn’t a problem in the early months when my Spanish skills were in their infancy, but it’s becoming more of an issue now that I can actually talk.
Cuso did alert us to the cultural differences around conversation, blunt talkers not being the general rule in countries like Honduras. Still, it’s tough to curb that instinct.
Hondurans will spend a good 10 minutes of gentle warm-up with somebody before they get to the point: how's the kids; boy, it's been hot this past week; are those chilies you've got planted over there? If you’ve come to their house to talk business, expect to pull up a chair on the porch, drink a big glass of horchata, and wait and wait before anyone gets around to the real reason for the visit. Even the emails down here start with a couple of paragraphs of abrazos (hugs) and blessings from God before they cut to the chase.
Then there’s shop culture. In the small stores especially, people don’t really line up to pay for their things. It’s more of a horizontal exercise, with everyone standing along the counter in an unclear order waiting for the clerk to give them a signal that it’s their turn. None of the customers ever shows so much as a hint of impatience while experiencing this.
At first I stood back at a respectful distance, fearful of looking like the big, pushy gringa demanding service first. But you can stand there a long time if you don’t get at least a little pushy. Now I make an effort to inch closer to the counter as I wait, and have taken up the habit of my fellow customers of having money clearly evident in my hand. It seems to help.
The other day when I was at a drug store buying hair product, the clerk fetched a co-worker from the other side of the store and they proceeded to have an intense conversation with each other about how the other young woman got her hair so shiny and smooth.
At first I was baffled, and slightly irritated that the clerk had chosen to get into a personal conversation before she rang through my sale. But then it dawned on me that the exchange was for my benefit. They were making suggestions to me, in their indirect way, about products I might want to try to get the same luxe hair as the other girl.
I admit, the indirectness is one of the parts of Honduras culture that I like the least. No big deal when it manifests as two young women dropping hints about hair products, but it’s a real irritant when you’re trying to resolve a problem.
 Rather than just give it to you straight and risk that you won’t like what you hear, people will say whatever they think will make you go away happy. But the third or fourth time that happens and the problem is still no nearer to being resolved, let me tell you, you’re no longer going away happy.
I’ve learned to quit asking people for directions, or what time the parade starts, or where the meeting’s going to be. It seems they can’t bring themselves to tell you that they don’t have a clue. So they just make something up.
One night in Santa Rosa de Copan, we wandered for almost an hour on the advice of six different locals we asked for help, looking for a restaurant that turned out to be two minutes away from our hotel. I’ve had similar experiences when I’ve asked about which bus to catch, or when the next one was leaving. Or from where.
But hey, so we get lost once in a while. So we experience occasional bouts of unbearable frustration trying to resolve a customer-service problem that is never, ever going to get resolved. I like the place, and in fact am starting to feel the cultural disconnect more now when I’m back in the impersonal, insulated and harried culture of my own land.
I like that people want to talk here. I’m even getting better at not glancing around nervously during our conversations to see what time it is and whether I’m late, because I’ve now been here long enough to know that whoever I’m rushing off to see will almost certainly show up later than me anyway. I like the ritual of greeting every person I walk past.
And sometimes, the fellow from the Copan Ruinas post office runs out into the street as my spouse or I are passing by to tell us that we’ve got mail. Now there’s a cultural difference I could get used to.

1 comment:

Owen Gray said...

I remember reading The Silent Language as an undergraduate. It helped explain why people talk past each other.

And I determined that, when I went to a new place, it was better to watch and listen before I opened my mouth.