Saturday, August 28, 2010

no, seriously, I meant "slower."

I don't make national or cultural generalizations lightly, and in truth I don't find a ton of things I'm willing to say about "Chileans." I will say that they're generally extremely friendly and family-oriented, more reserved than their various Latin American colleagues, and they take a deep joy in sharing with others that I've never seen before.

They also don't listen.

Most humans have trouble with listening. What happens is that our conversations actually happen in our minds, and instead of really listening to the person in front of us, what they say passes through our internal translator made up of who we think they are. This is how someone says "I feel like you don't enjoy going to the opera with me," and we later remember them saying "I'm really disappointed in you that you don't like going to the opera, and I think it shows that you don't like me that much." Then we compound the problem by reacting to what we heard instead to what they said--"Dammit, how can she think I don't like her? Don't I do all these things to show it?"--and then we feel sulky and unappreciated, and on it goes.

Meanwhile, the other person is probably having a conversation completely different from what you're having, and you're both going insane. Let's call these "imaginary conversations."

This is all normal, and happens even between people who know each other well and who know the phenomenon. In Chile, the culture is monolithic enough that it often seems like there's an imaginary conversation shared by all Chileans, and specific conversations are just brief departures from it, like fish jumping out of the water and then continuing downstream. If you're Chilean, this is all very natural. For a foreigner, though, they're often not actually listening to what you're saying, and just continuing with their customary imaginary conversation.

One great example is asking people to speak slower: they don't. It goes like this (today's example):
Chilean: [incomprehensible blur of Spanish words]
Chris: Can you repeat that more slowly?
Chilean: [nodding] Ah, ya. [repeats self, at least as fast as the first time]
Or this conversation that I also had today:
Chilean: Are you Chilean?
Chris: [stunned] Uh, no, I'm American.
Chilean: Really? You understood everything. And you speak really well.
Chris: Oh, thanks, but I actually only understand about fifty percent of what people say.
Chilean: Nah, you manage really well.
I'm not entirely sure what happened there, but deep listening was not part of it. To be fair, it was after aikido class, and I do understand more of aikido, because I have enough training to complement what I can understand of the language. Plus, words associated with aikido were the only thing I studied before I came.

I wonder if people actually think I'm Chilean, and how they see me that way. I must appear to be a blue-eyed, white, hearing-impaired Chilean with a speech impediment.

[UPDATE: Anna informs me that the word for this is a "high-context culture," where there is so much shared knowledge in the culture that the words actually spoken in conversation don't carry as much of the information as we're used to in the U.S.]

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