Monday, November 12, 2018

Book Published, Writing Another...

Please note that I now post at

Betrayal on Aruba Winds

a novel

"If history were told in form of stories, it would never be forgotten."
--Rudyard Kipling     

What you never knew about WWII
Publication March, 2018

Review by Kirkus, NY

Historical images and photos

Thursday, May 15, 2014


On indefinite sabbatical to work on another book.
I best love writing.


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Lost in translation...or gained.

Different languages require more or less words to express the same thing. This table of percentage increases and decreases compared to English is interesting and useful in planning communication. It particularly affects advertising and publishing layouts. Finnish allows the most concise expression of the languages on this list, with French, German, Italian and Spanish shown as the most verbose.

Source: Financial News 11Jul11 p. 27

Friday, April 8, 2011

Translation to Korean of "Communicating with Brazilians"

부산 외국어 대학교

tem interêsse em comunicação con brasileiros.

The Institute for Iberoamerican Studies at Pusan University of Foreign Studies in South Korea is translating the book Communicating with Brazilians: When"Yes" Mean "No" into Korean. This indication of interest in Brazil may augur well for Brazil-Korean trade. The Korean translation will be published in 2012.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A Brit's Look at Americans

Letter From London

My American Friends
by Geoff Dyer in the New York Times
31 Dec 2009

The first thing I ever heard about Americans was that they all carried guns. Then, when I came across people who’d had direct contact with this ferocious-sounding tribe, I learned that they were actually rather friendly. At university, friends who had traveled in the United States came back with more detailed stories, not just of the friendliness of Americans but also of their hospitality (which, in our quaint English way, was translated into something close to gullibility). When I finally got to America myself, I found that not only were the natives friendly and hospitable, they were also incredibly polite. No one tells you this about Americans, but once you notice it, it becomes one of their defining characteristics, especially when they’re abroad.

This is very strange, or at least it says something strange about the way that perception routinely conforms to the preconceptions it would appear to contradict. The archetypal American abroad is perceived as loud and crass even though actually existing American tourists are distinguished by the way they address bus drivers and bartenders as “sir” and are effusive in their thanks when any small service is rendered. We look on with some confusion at these encounters because, on the one hand, the Americans seem a bit country-bumpkinish, and, on the other, good manners are a form of sophistication.

Granted, these visiting Americans often seem to have loud voices, but on closer examination, it’s a little subtler than that. Americans have no fear of being overheard. Civic life in Britain is predicated on the idea that everyone just about conceals his loathing of everyone else. To open your mouth is to risk offending someone. So we mutter and mumble as if surrounded by informers or, more exactly, as if they are living in our heads. In America the right to free speech is exercised freely and cordially. The basic assumption is that nothing you say will offend anyone else because, deep down, everyone is agreed on the premise that America is better than anyplace else. No such belief animates British life. On the contrary. A couple of years ago a survey indicated that British Muslims were the most fed-up of any in Europe: a sign, paradoxically, of profound assimilation.

If the typical American interaction involves an ostensibly contradictory mixture of the formal (politeness), the casual and the cordial, what happens when one moves beyond the transactional? Like many Europeans, I always feel good about myself in America; I feel appreciated, liked. It took a while to realize that this had nothing to do with me. It was about the people who made me feel this way: it was about charm. Yes, this is the bright secret of life in the United States: Americans are not just friendly and polite — they are also charming. And the most charming thing of all is that it rarely looks like charm. The French put a rather charmless emphasis on charm, are consciously or unconsciously persuaded that it is either part of a display of sophistication or — and it may amount to the same thing — a tool in the service of seduction.

You can see all of this in operation on flights back across the Atlantic from America to Euroland. At first we are under the spell of America. Instead of plunking ourselves down next to someone without a word, we say “Hi.” Maybe even indulge in a little conversation, though this American readiness to chat is counterbalanced by the fear that once we’ve got into a conversation we might not be able to extricate ourselves from it. By the time we’re mid-ocean, a kind of preparatory freeze has set in. As the flight stacks up in the inevitable holding pattern over Heathrow, we begin to revert to our muttering and moaning national selves. But, for a week or so after landing, a form of what might be called Ameristalgia makes us conscious of a rudeness in British life — a coarsening in the texture of daily life — that had hitherto seemed quite normal.

For example. I pay a considerable sum of money to play indoors at Islington Tennis Centre. Eighty percent of the time, the next people to play indicate that your time is up by unzipping their racket covers and strolling on court, without saying a word, without a smile, without acknowledging your existence except as an impediment. In America that would be not just unacceptable but inconceivable.

What is the relevance of this anecdotal trivia to a serious debate about the status of America in the world?

Most of my American friends were depressed and gloomy about the Bush years. Several said that if Bush were re-elected in 2004, they would leave the country. He was and they didn’t. The bottom line is that given the choice, Americans love it rather than leave it. Day to day, American life remained as pleasant as could be expected, even in the midst of considerable economic hardship. There was even a bonding, anti-Bush feeling similar to the kind of consensual opposition that we experienced under Margaret Thatcher. A visiting American artist like Patti Smith found that while the usual torrent of name-­dropping — Rimbaud, Mapplethorpe, Kerouac et al. — got a smattering of appreciative applause, a single gibe about Bush brought the house down.

At the same time, either sterling went up or the dollar went down (I don’t really understand this stuff), and as a consequence, Americans felt poor when they visited our rainy little island. So, for a brief period, we felt richer — planeloads of us went to Mannahatta and bought up everything in sight — and ideologically and ethically superior. Man, that felt good. We had a less blinkered attitude to Israel, didn’t drive big gas-guzzling S.U.V.’s, and if we were chilly of an evening we put on a sweater rather than turning up the heating (or, more accurately, turning off the A.C.). Sure, Blair went along with invading Iraq, but wasn’t that partly because he hoped to restrain the crusading fundamentalism of Bush? Now the dollar is back up — or down, or whichever it is — Europe is no longer expensive, and with the election of Barack Obama, the brief cushion of political superiority has been permanently deflated.
The Obama election was a real kick in the teeth, because although we Britons still seethe with class hatred, we pride ourselves on our highly evolved attitude to the question of race that has consistently undermined the American dream. The slight problem is that racial intermingling in Britain is most conspicuous in the ethnically diverse makeup of the groups of yobs — Asian, black and white — who exercise their antisocial behavioral skills without any kind of discrimination as to whom they happen to be terrorizing. In this regard, as in so many others, we seem to be leading from the bottom up.

Across the board, the grounds for all our feelings of superiority have been steadily whittled away. It turns out that the qualities that make us indubitably British — that is, the ones that we don’t share with or have not imported from America — are no longer conducive to Greatness. They actually add up to a kind of ostrich stoicism that, though it can be traced back to our finest hour (the blitz, the Battle of Britain), manifests itself in a peculiar compromise: a highly stylized willingness to muddle on, to put up with poor quality and high prices (restaurants, trains), to proffer (and accept) apologies not as a prelude to but as a substitute for improvement. We may not enjoy the way things are, but we endure them in a way that seems either quaint or quasi-Soviet to American visitors.
A tiny example. There’s a fashionable gastro pub near where I live. You scrum at the bar, desperate to get the attention of the barman. After a while, he will raise his eyebrows and glare at you. Unschooled in our rough ways, a visitor from America might assume he is being threatened, but actually the glare means that your order can now be taken — as long as you’re quick about it. When a friend from California had managed to order, he was handed the credit card terminal, which showed the amount and the option to add something for service. Americans are predisposed to tip, but my friend was slightly taken aback because, far from being in receipt of anything that might be described as service, it felt as if he had been fighting for a place aboard the last lifeboat on the Titanic. “Welcome to England,” I said.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Brazil: Just Say No?

Quoted from Brazilophile Noonz’s MySpace

If You Want to Travel, Read

Following up on my earlier discussion about travel (and my slight :-P obsession with Brasil), I wanted to write about the book Communicating with Brazilians: When Yes Means No by Tracy Novinger.

Do you love the culture of Brasil? The being-in-Rio-enjoying-Carnivale-and-doing-the-samba-all-night-to-bossa-nova-with-a-bronzed-lovely-(wo)man (enquanto na praia, sim)-Brasil? Yea, you especially need to read this book.

Beyond discussing the ways of verbal and non-verbal communication with Brazilians, Ms. Novinger deftly gives the reader an excellent and comprehensive primer on the political, cultural, and economic history of Brasil, Brasileiros (Paulistas, Cariocas, Nordestinos, etc), and why they communicate they way they do. This book is scholarly yet friendly, and a must read if you are planning to go to any region of Brasil; particularly the larger cities. From food to favelas, from sex to singing, reading Ms. Novinger's book gives you to the tools to take your hazy dreams of Brasil and reconcile them clearly to the reality of a country that is full of disparity, bureaucracy, contradiction; and a place where values of family, friendship, and festa (party) take on deep, intense, and lasting meanings.

The first step to successful travel is realizing that you will have to leave your hometown expectations behind, and you will have to change the method to your madness when you're in someone else's "house". Be Open, know your destination, and try to understand the "other side"...

Read up!
March 23, 2007 - Friday

Você poderia dizer "não" (ou "é um segredo"): A sabedoria de Tracy Novinger
Translation: All you had to do was say "No" (or "It's a secret"): The wisdom of Tracy Novinger

Earlier this year I discussed the book Communicating with Brazilians: When Yes Means No by Tracy Novinger (see March 23, 2007). Whether you have a superficial interest in or a deep, long (albeit removed) relationship with Brazil or Brazilians, this text would be helpful to you.

I know it has been for me during the last few months. In the text, Ms. Novinger discusses that Brazilians hate to say no. Rarely will you hear anyone from the "Grand and Sweet" country willingly offer you anything in the realm of a negative response. Rather than give a "hard yes" or a "fast no" they will lend you a "barely there maybe"... and hope you figure it out. For North Americans who pride themselves on being direct and expecting a definitive outcome, communication with Brazilians can be difficult and lead to disappointment or frustration.

Reading text is one thing, but experiencing it first hand is another. Earlier this year at work, a young student from São Paulo came to ask a question, and we discussed her hometown and my desire to visit one day. We discussed music, etc. and at the end of our conversation she said: "When you are ready to visit SP, make sure you send me an email!" She smiled. I smiled. She left. That day I was glad I'd read Ms. Novinger's book. The young lady said "email" her...but she made no attempt to give me her email address (and her nonverbal cues said "don't ask me, either!" - or maybe she just had to get to class..who knows). Novinger had hit the proverbial nail.

Even so, today I am disappointed. Regardless of how much I read about other cultures, I find that I still expect a certain level of " direct American interaction" from my Brazilian buddies. Whether or not this is right is no doubt debateable; and I realize that even within my own culture, crystal clear communication is more often a miss than a hit...but come on...

I say "hi" you say "hey", I say "how you doing?" you say "I'm gonna call you, is that cool?" I say "sure, when, I want to make sure I get your call". Then I get silencio...

What's up with that? I mean I can understand if I'm *begging/whining* for info and you just don't want to say. I mean, I'd get the hint! But to offer information and then not want to say what's up is just..well, it's just mean. For me, it begs the question: do you really want to communicate (call/response) or do you just want to advertise? I understand either way, but if it's advertise, you need to work on the "hard yes/fast no" and leave the "barely maybes" for the home base.

So for you dear Readers: How hard is it really to just tell someone "no"? Do you have problems saying "no"? If so, why?

October 26, 2007 - Friday

Thursday, November 19, 2009

On Contrasting Cultures

Here is one resident's perspective on Mexico, so close to the United States and so far from God...

The Bierce Account

It´s quite fun to kick back and watch the misunderstandings fly . . . and fly they do.

Nowhere touch two nations, two peoples, two languages, two worlds that are so utterly different.

The Americans do not understand the Mexicans, though they think they do, even Gringos who live among us. Those poor Mexicans are just like us. They only need a helping hand.

Helping hand = charity.

Truth is, explaining Mexicans to Americans is akin to explaining a sea society to a desert-dwelling people who gauge everything by its relationship to saguaro cacti and blistering sunshine.

Neither do Mexicans understand Americans, but they really don´t care that much, being far more introspective. Mexicans focus on themselves and their families. They care about other Mexicans only as a cuddly patriotic concept.

Their attitude toward their American neighbors is a conflictive brew of envy, wonderment and resentment.

Putting aside the current global economic crisis (which is cyclical and will pass), let us ask ourselves why the economy and society function remarkably well north of the U.S.-Mexico border, and just the opposite south of the border.

To twist that old campaign slogan: It´s the culture, stupid.

Yours truly defines culture very broadly as the way a nation, a people, looks at the world. And that world view passes through the prism of their language, which is one issue.

Spanish is a Romance language and, like love itself, it is shadowy and unpredictable. You can hide in Spanish. You can dance, this way and that. You can be quite unclear if that is your desire.

. . . as it often is. Octavio Paz famously wrote: A Mexican´s "face is a mask and so is his smile."

English, like the English-speaking people, is far less prone to masks. English is often directly in your face. It is a tongue with Germanic undertones. It is efficient.

* * * *

We are very different. Contrary to common notions, Mexico is a younger nation than the United States. It´s 1810 versus 1776.

But that measly 34-year difference is deceptive. The United States began as a democracy, and has been one for over 200 years. Mexico, on winning independence, promptly slid into chaos and into the arms of Gen. Santa Anna.

. . . then the mess with Emperor Max . . . and the dictatorship of Díaz . . . the murderous revolution . . . the comparatively benign dictatorship of what became the Revolutionary Institutional Party, lasting until the year 2000. Almost yesterday, amigos.

Mexico is still staggering, bruised and bloody.

What did the past 200 years (yes, we are about to celebrate the bicentennial) do to the Mexican mind and heart?

It made us stunningly cautious and suspicious. We do not trust others, and we certainly do not trust any government. Many, perhaps most, men toted pistols down into the 1950s.

But we smile a lot, and we love to say yes. Doing otherwise, we have painfully learned, can be quite counterproductive.

And potentially lethal. We have learned to act happy.

. . . which totally flummoxes the Gringos, a fun side effect.

* * * *

Mexico is a large country with lots of natural resources, a mother lode of possibilities that we waste due to the distrust and suspicion that has been pounded into us over centuries.

Like the bright, high school student with poor grades, we are not living up to our potential.

The nation above the Rio Bravo totally misreads us, and how not? The Gringos had no Santa Ana, no inept emperor shipped in from Europe, no moustachioed Generalissimo Díaz . . .

. . . no bloody revolution that ended only one long lifespan ago, no slick "political party" of oligarchs stealing elections, sometimes at pistol point, for most of the 20th Century.

So here you have two nations. One has progressed successfully through two centuries of democracy. The other has crept two centuries from one bloody disaster into another. What do these people have in common? Absolutamente nada.

And yet they are neighbors, shoulder to shoulder.

Mexico has changed, especially in this decade, just the final five seconds of the nation´s time-line.

It´s time to grow up, time to don long pants, come out of the house, say hi to our neighbors, learn to see long-term, recognize that what helps the neighborhood helps us too . . .

No one will shoot us although our guts signal otherwise.

. . . time to quit sneaking up north to cut the Gringos´ grass, time to stay here and check out the many opportunities we have within our own borders. And, sí señor, there are many.

Our biggest enemy faces us in the mirror. It is time to take off the mask and be sincere, time to do what we say we´ll do . . .

. . . arrive on time, say no when it´s appropriate, trust others and see that usually we´re not disappointed.

. . . though at times we will be. We´ll get over it.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Mexico: On When Yes Means No

In a February 19, 2009, blog post to Alioqui Negotiis, CM recounts his experience in Michoacan with indirectness in Mexican communication style. I excerpt below:

Alioqui Negotiis - February 19, 2009
When Yes means No

"Mexicans love to say they'll help you, the problem is determining when they actually mean. Often, the process goes something like this:

  1) Person agrees to help.
  2) Person avoids you at all cost.
  3) If you manage to get in touch with said person, they promise to help right away/as soon as possible.
  4) Person repeats steps 2 and 3 until you give up.

"The doctor I was to contact in Michoacan (see last post) managed to be out of the office, in meetings, or otherwise "unavailable" every time I called last week, which was quite a lot, and has not called me since I left my number with the secretary; in other words, he has been remarkably successful in step 2. Frustrating, but at least I know where I stand.

"My adviser, on the other hand, I haven't figured out. When I manage to get in touch with him, he always tries (or at least appears to try) to be quite helpful, making calls for me etc. On the other hand, he's not easy to get in touch with, and his 'contacts', such as the guy in Michoacan, don't necessarily come through. He promised to call the Michoacan doctor for me after I told him my difficulties on Tuesday, but "I'll let you know this afternoon" has turned into 2 days without hearing from him. Am I trapped in step 3 with Dr. Rios, or is Dr. Rios trapped in step 2/3 with his contact in Morelia? Hard to tell. I'd like to think that this is just another example of Mexico being slow, but I think that's a little naive considering how common and ongoing these types of problems are here."

This is a classic example of indirectness in communication style. Reasons for this indirectness of style in Mexico (a style common in many other cultures, as well) are explored and explained in Intercultural Communication: A Practical Guide.

This begs a synopsis on indirectness, at some time... If I can get to writing it, I will post it here.

Links to:
Blog - Alioqui Negotiis
Book - Intercultural Communication: A Practical Guide (focus on Mexico)
Book - Communicating with Brazilians: When "Yes" Means "No"

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Review of "Intercultural Communication: A Practical Guide"

Intercultural Communication: A Practical Guide
by Tracy Novinger

In his engaging commentary on this book, Swiss writer Hans Durrer states:
  • "[It is] difficult to think of a more compelling way (I was reminded of a thriller) to introduce a tome on intercultural communication and, needless to say, [Tracy Novinger] had my full attention..."
Review of "Intercultural Communication":
...a well-dressed Mexican pulled up in a taxi to the Palacio de Justicia in Lima, Peru. Armed guards were standing on the steps ascending to the building. The passenger paid and thanked the driver and opened the door of the cab, intent on the information he had come to get. As he leaned forward and put one foot on the pavement, a cold rifle muzzle jabbed him in the temple and jerked his attention to matters at hand. The Peruvian guard holding the rifle shot two harsh words at him. The Mexican reddened, emerged from the taxi, and drew himself erect. With a sweep at his arm, he retorted three words: „Qué! Nos conocemos?“ (What! Do we know each other?) With a half bow the guard lowered the rifle and courteously gestured the man up the steps, speaking in deferential tones. What happened here? What did the guard with the gun say that triggered this reaction from the Mexican? And what in the Mexican visitor’s behavior and those three Spanish words instantly changed the Peruvian guard's attitude and demeanor?“

This is how Tracy Novinger begins her „Intercultural Communication: A Practical Guide“ (University of Texas Press, Austin). Difficult to think of a more compelling way (I was reminded of a thriller) to introduce a tome on intercultural communication and, needless to say, she had my full attention:

...he Mexican visitor and the Peruvian guard participated in a communication exchange that was deeply embedded in the hierarchy and formality inherent in Mediterranean-based cultures. With the interrogation, „Qué quieres?“ (What do you want?), the guard had addressed the visitor with the familiar verb form in Spanish. The familiar form of address in most Spanish-speaking countries is used only with family members, close friends, former classmates, or children. The reflexive reaction of the man arriving was indignation, even though the circumstances were dangerous. His retort „Do we know each other?“ was a powerful cultural rebuke. The automatic response of the guard was to amend his discourtesy and reply in the formal style of address for the visitor to please go about his business. Fortunately for the Mexican visitor, this incident turned out well. He would have not responded in such a manner if he had stopped to think about the logic of challenging a gun with indignation and three Spanish words – but the point is that he did not think. Cultural conditioning controlled the behavior of both men, including he who held the gun and the apparent power. Neither men went through a conscious thought process.“

Think! is always good advice, and especially when dealing with members of other cultures. Yet it is hardly enough. „You are American soldiers! Think about it!“ Joseph Heller lets (in „Catch 22“) an officer address his subordinates and then comments: „They thought about it.“

Don’t get me wrong: Tracy Novinger does not argue that going „through a conscious thought process“ is enough in order to deal successfully with members of foreign cultures. I mainly quoted Joseph Heller because I love this quote. What Novinger does argue for is that „we must learn to speak a foreign culture in the same way we must learn to speak a foreign language.“ In other words, we must learn the art of nonverbal communication which is said to make up „two-thirds to three-fourths of our communication.“ And, how does one do that? By spending time with Tracy Novinger’s helpful book, for example.

Tracy Novinger
Intercultural Communication: A Practical Guide
University of Texas Press, Austin
Posted by AcrossCultures at 07:58
at blogspot Across Cultures or at

Herr Durrer is the author of Ways of Perception: On Visual and Intercultural Communication.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Book Review: Communicating with Brazilians

Hans Durrer, a Swiss writer, has recently returned from Brazil and reviews:

Communicating with Brazilians: When "Yes" Means "No"
by Tracy Novinger

at blogspot Across Cultures or at

Review: Communicating with Brazilians

Returning from an extended stay in Brazil, I started to read Tracy Novinger’s Communicating with Brazilians: When „Yes“ means „No“ (University of Texas Press, Austin, 2003) with great interest. Already after the first few pages I decided to like this book. Because of sentences like these:

„Beyond focusing attention on a nation’s characteristics that seem exotic and foreign to outsiders, to communicate successfully across cultures it is sometimes important to just rely on common sense. Small towns in both the United States and Brazil, for example, are more conservative than are large cities, as is generally true throughout the world.“

„Most of us think that we act through our own free will. But think again. For the most part, we do not.“

„Culture is the logic by which we give order to the world … Put simply, culture is the way we do things around here.“

Given that, in 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of 164 definitions of "culture" (in Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions) this is a refreshingly succinct and useful statement.

Now let’s have a look at the Brazilians who Darcy Ribeiro characterises as „better than others because bathed in black and Indian blood, a people whose role from here on will be less a matter of absorbing European things than of teaching the world how to live with more joy and more happiness.“ I think Darcy Ribeiro is right, I do indeed believe that Brazilians live with more joy and happiness than others. All others? No idea, really, but definitely with more joy and happiness than the Swiss. Needless to say I can already hear some protests so let me hasten to add: save for one or two exceptions.

I do not intend to point out how the book has to be seen in context of all the other books written about Brazil. Anyway, how could I? I only know Stefan Zweig’s Brasil. Um país do futuro and Peter Kellemen’s Brasil para principiantes and both of them are not mentioned in the bibliography (I highly recommend them). What I want to do here is to highlight some of the things I liked about this tome.

First and foremost: the abundance of telling anecdotes. Contrary to academics in the communication field who routinely dismiss them („of anecdotal value at best“), I love and treasure them for they teach me the essentials.

„A young woman who is an engineer hired by Schlumberger to work on oil platforms said that when she goes home to São Paulo, she and her sister no longer go out at night without their parents because the city has become so dangerous. One evening the two women went to a movie and were followed when they drove home. They called their house by cell phone. Their parents immediately turned on all of the outside lights, they and their gardener stationed themselves visibly to observe the arrival of the two sisters, and they ensured that the two young women had immediate access to the enclosed garage area.“

I heard numerous such stories when travelling for some months in the Northeast in 2006 and I heard again numerous such stories when teaching English in Santa Cruz do Sul in 2008. In other words: „Personal safety is an issue of primary public concern in Brazil.“

In the chapter „Racial Fusion“ the following story, under the headline „Only in Brazil“, can be found:

„Recently, three years after the fact, it was discovered by chance that two babies had been switched at birth in the hospital. Each family loved the happy little boy it was raising. Despite daily news coverage and avid public interest in custody considerations, no reports remarked on the fact that one of the boys was black and was accepted at birth by white parents and that the other boy was white and was raised without question by dark-skinned parents.“

So, there is no racism in Brazil? „Of course there is“, says Ricardo (of Schütz & Kanomata Idiomas in Santa Cruz do Sul), „and it is a problem but we’re not as neurotic about it as the Americans.“ Indeed.

And then there’s the jeito:

„The most significant, pervasive, and typical national filter through which the Brazilians see the world is that of jeito or jeitinho – the concept of finding a way … For Brazilians, there is always a way, some way, any way, to accomplish what one needs or wants to accomplish.“

I especially warmed to this wonderful definition here:

„Jeito is a product of an intelligent, inventive, free, and creative attitude that one should take the initiative of acting in opposition to rules.“

But isn’t that ethically problematic? Of course it is, sometimes, but what isn’t?

So much for now. I will soon come back to this inspiring work.

Tracy Novinger
Communicating with Brazilians
When „Yes“ means „No“
University of Texas Press, Austin, 2003

Posted by AcrossCultures at 00:02

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Tu or Usted ?

© Tracy Novinger 2008

… always use Usted when in doubt.

People often wonder just when they should use tu and when they should use Usted to address a person as “you” in Mexico. These seem like simple words, but in the Spanish speaking world their cultural use is complex and significant. Furthermore, conventions can vary in different Spanish speaking countries. The misuse of tu and Usted can both offend and cause misunderstanding. Fortunately, there is a simple rule that one can use to play safe. In addition, there is an explanation of the roles these words play in communication that affords one insight into Mexican culture.
A simple explanation is that tu is informal and Usted is formal. To be safe, one should err on the side of the formal: always use Usted when in doubt. This will ensure that one will never be wrong when Usted is required. The people to whom one is close enough to say tu will be understanding and won’t care much which pronoun one employs with them.

Mexican culture is steeply hierarchical. Persons can rank high on the social ladder by reason of family lineage, power, education, and wealth, to name a few factors. The upper classes demand deference from those they consider to belong to lower social strata. “Superiors” maintain an authoritative distance to “inferiors,” even though they may employ formal courtesy. Mexican communication style both reflects and reinforces the culture’s hierarchy.

In contrast, individuals in the flatter hierarchy of the United States seek to decrease hierarchical difference with their communication style. A speaker will use forms of address that demote the rank of persons at higher echelons and promote persons at lower ones because their culture teaches them to emphasize the equality of all persons and minimize status difference. When an American addresses a Mexican at a high social level in a familiar manner, s/he offends by not recognizing the person’s status or maintaining proper distance; when s/he treats a person of a more modest station in life as an equal, it often confuses or embarrasses the person because they perceive a clear status difference. In Mexico, communication style recognizes that power is, in fact, distributed unequally. The difference in hierarchy in Mexican and U.S. culture is one of degree: all societies have, of course, a pecking order and courteous forms of address.

As a consequence of Mexico’s hierarchy, in addition to the use of Usted, the use of titles is important. Use Señor and Señora with everyone except close friends if one does not know their title. However, anyone with a university degree is a Licenciado/a. The title for an attorney is always Licenciado/a. An architect is Arquitecto, an engineer Engeniero and a teacher Maestro/a. If, for example, one goes to an attorney’s office one would ask for Licenciado Gutierrez rather than Señor Gutierrez. One’s use of the proper title in this manner will be very well viewed even if one is speaking English. Likewise in conversation, one would address a person as Arquitecta Sanchez or Ingeniero Gomez. A doctor is Doctor, as in the United States.

The use of tu can indicate intimacy. It is used in families and among close friends. It also can indicate rank. Adults address all children as tu, but children should address adults as Usted unless they are close family members. Not so long ago (and in a few families today) many children were required to address their parents as Usted, similar to the use of Sir and Ma’am still used by children when speaking to their parents in some of the English speaking world.

Usted is employed both to indicate respect and to maintain distance. Employees and subordinates address their employers, managers and supervisors with Usted. Some employers or managers may use tu with employees to indicate that they outrank them, and the employees thus addressed will acknowledge this difference in status by responding with Usted. When a superior addresses a subordinate with Usted, this may indicate respect or it may be intended to maintain social distance. One should not use tu to address staff in offices that one visits. Nor should one employ tu to seem more “friendly.” What Americans call friendliness, which is communicative warmth, Mexicans convey in many other ways, even while using Usted.

Usted is generally used by all when addressing a very old person of any social level, and one Mexican professional commented that the poor of Mexico have so little in life that at least one can give them dignity by addressing them with Usted. Some people use tu with domestic help, especially if these employees have worked with the family for many years. But it is generally considered bad form to address the domestic help of someone else’s household with tu. In venues such as dinners and social gatherings, middle class and upper class adults who know each other will often speak with tu to recognize equal social standing. Younger people more easily address each other with tu than older generations.

Usted also serves to maintain distance between men and women. In fact, if a man inappropriately addresses a woman as tu and she allows it or responds with tu, it may indicate she is accepting or encouraging a type of attention she may not want. In some cultures, this situation requires a direct rebuke. In Mexico one can say politely that one prefers to use Usted, but Mexican culture places a premium on harmonious relations and prefers indirectness even to courteous confrontation. One way to handle this situation, especially in front of others, is for the woman to continue to use Usted, and let the man’s lack of manners speak for itself.

In summary, here are some tips for effective and harmonious communication between Mexicans and Americans:

1. Always be courteous and polite.

2. Use Usted unless one is absolutely certain that tu is appropriate.

3. Overly “friendly” behavior can be interpreted as disrespectful or naïve.

4. Liberally use titles such as Señor, Señora, Maestro, Arquitecto, Ingeniero, Licenciado.

5. Americans need to remember that polite communication in Mexico is more formal than in the United States.

6. Mexicans should understand that Americans are culturally trained to communicate in a familiar or “friendly” manner that is intended to please and not to offend.

To the long list of the many pleasures of living in or visiting Mexico, one can add the general courtesy and good manners of Mexican people from all walks of life when they interact with others. And if some Mexican customs seem different, then viva la diferencia.

© Tracy Novinger 2008

See also “Intercultural Communication: A Practical Guide” by Tracy Novinger, available through or Focuses on U.S.-Mexico communication issues.

This article published in the March 2008 issue of Another Day in Paradise magazine (htp://

Friday, February 1, 2008

On Cultural Time

© Tracy Novinger 2008

American culture teaches its members to “save time”... In Mexico one “spends” time…

When Americans and Mexicans communicate, they often seem to enter a time warp where words confuse and behavior confounds. There is a reason for this. Every culture strictly mandates the behavior of each and every one of its members. And since the different behavior required by different cultures has communicative meaning, when Mexicans and Americans interact, it is not surprising that misunderstanding can occur.

Because people in different cultures are conditioned to behave and even think differently, their respective perceptions are quite different. When it comes to time, different measures and uses prevail and can cause communication problems between Mexicans and Americans. Although Mexicans react negatively to some time traits of American culture, the difference in the two cultures’ use of time bothers North Americans more than it does Mexicans. Indeed, Americans often view Mexico's informal time system as a symptom of inefficiency when, rather, it evidences a different philosophy of life.

American culture teaches its members to “save time” and not to “waste time;” time is viewed as a precious, quantitative commodity. Americans have all heard the maxim that “time is money.” In the United States, the clock reigns supreme. In contrast, in Mexico one “spends” time; time correlates to activity. Mexicans live at a slower pace and in the moment. They see time in life as opportunity, not money. To live for time is to live for nothing.

In Mexico, people regularly engage in many activities simultaneously. In the monochronic culture of the United States, people usually prefer to focus on one activity at a time when they interact and communicate (although, of course, they can multitask). Let’s assume that George Turner has an appointment at an office in Mexico. As he sits in front of Sr. Perez’ desk and they converse, the secretary enters and asks a question for someone waiting for an answer, Sr. Perez asks his son to go pick up his car, then tells his wife who is hovering on the side that he will meet her at 2:00 PM, all while the accountant has him sign a check, the phone rings and he intersperses talk with George. All the conversations and activities drive George crazy and he feels ignored. It helps one cope with such multiple activities if one understands that in polychronic Mexico they are not unusual, nor are they necessarily impolite.

Another important characteristic of polychronic cultures is that personal relationships are paramount and such relationships take time to establish. Since it is important in Mexico to take time to establish personal relationships before trying to transact business, this may mean making four times as many calls on a person as one might make in the United States to reach one’s objective. Contrary to North American sales training where one is told to keep asking for the order, in Mexico it is important to bide one’s time and be patient.

The United States' approach to time makes North Americans appear to Mexicans to be too blunt (too quick to get to the point) and to be discourteous in the lack of time spent on personal courtesies. Indeed, Mexicans’ solicitous concern for a person’s comfort and well-being is genuine and, even if it were only ritual, is very pleasant. But since American culture teaches a person not to waste time, when an American offers a brief greeting as the preamble to a conversation, the American is in part motivated by wanting to save the other’s precious time. Unfortunately, this behavior that was intended to be considerate is frequently perceived by a Mexican as cold or impolite.

The conventions of “punctuality" also differ in the two countries. Arriving late for social invitations in Mexico’s time culture is polite—it is arriving on time that is a breach of etiquette. By arriving at the scheduled hour, one may embarrass the hosts, who may not be ready. For a dinner invitation at 8:00 p.m., time conventions dictate that one should not arrive before 8:30 or 9:00. However, if the dinner is formal, one Mexican etiquette book recommends that one should “not be more than thirty minutes late.” Given Mexican customs, Americans should not be surprised when Mexican friends arrive at a time that is late by U.S. standards. One social group that includes Mexicans and Americans has developed its own conventions. Because this group is so tuned in to cultural differences, they often joke among themselves, and when someone mentions the time for an event another will call out: "¿Hora mexicana o hora norteamericana?" (Mexican time or North American time?).

Time in the work day is also scheduled differently in the U.S. and Mexico. Mexicans usually take time for their families in the morning and start work later than in the United States, usually around 9:00 a.m. They also take long lunches for their main meal, and then typically have a longer workday than Americans, ending around 8:00 p.m. It is not uncommon to meet someone at their office at 7:00 PM, often referred to as the “afternoon”—“por la tardecita.” Government officials keep even later schedules.

As to scheduling meetings, many U.S. chairmen schedule meetings in the morning when people are supposed to be “fresh,” specify the starting and ending time, and they distribute the agenda in advance. The chairman then keeps an eye on the clock and the agenda to keep the meeting strictly on schedule. This is diametrically opposed to Mexican protocol. Mexicans tend to schedule meetings later in the day. If discussions are not finished, they consider it senseless to terminate a meeting because time as abstractly measured by the clock is up. In addition, they usually do not limit discussions only to certain topics. With so many differences in the perception of time, it is a wonder that Americans and Mexicans communicate as well as they do.

In general, in Mexico more time is spent maintaining personal relationships than in the United States. Activities are usually scheduled later in the day, and nothing that is productive or enjoyable is worth cutting short in order to do something else, whether ending a party or a meeting. It is customary to arrive late for social encounters and invitations do not specify ending times. Nor does logic necessarily apply to time. A maid may leave the day before payday just because she felt like it. Absenteeism after a weekend is so common that people refer to "St. Monday." But because we now live in a global world, many of today’s new generation of Mexicans place greater value on managing time by the clock than in the informal manner that has prevailed in Mexico in the past.

When Americans and Mexicans interact, it is important to bear in mind that the difference in the perception of time is just that: different. A culture is not defective because it is different. In the end, one should maintain a sense of cultural relativity, as well as a sense of humor. As one story goes, an Arab discussing cultural differences with a Mexican friend asked about the meaning of the expression mañana. On hearing the explanation, he nodded in understanding and replied, "That is like the Arab bukara, but bukara does not have the same sense of urgency."

© Tracy Novinger 2008

See “Intercultural Communication: A Practical Guide” by Tracy Novinger, available through or Focuses on U.S.-Mexico communication issues.

This article published in the February 2008 issue of Another Day in Paradise magazine (

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

How Culture Affects Communication

© Tracy Novinger 2008

… during all of the waking hours that we spend with other human beings we "speak" volumes through the behavior our culture has drilled into us.

When we visit another country where a different language is spoken, it is obvious that it is necessary for someone to speak the other’s language in order to surmount this barrier and verbally communicate. What is not so obvious, however, is that cultural barriers are greater than language barriers and they frequently provoke reactions that are both negative and emotional. What is considerate behavior in one country may be rude in another. What is a sensitive issue to one culture, to another may not be a point of any consequence. Therefore, we really need to learn to “speak” the culture.

Communication specialists estimate that some two-thirds to three-fourths of our communication takes place nonverbally through behavior. Behavior itself is learned from our culture and all behavior communicates. Since we cannot stop behaving in one way or another, we cannot stop communicating. Therefore, during all of the waking hours that we spend with other human beings we "speak" volumes through the behavior our culture drilled into us.

Most of us assume that our own culture’s ways are the natural order of things and we tend to see cultures that are different as less evolved. We think that people would all act the same way if they were behaving properly. When we come in contact with people from other cultures, we may experience indignation or irritation when a person appears to be uncooperative or “rude.” We are frustrated when a person with whom we are having a conversation just doesn’t get something that seems simple, and we feel that foggy sense of disconnection when we do not have a clue as to what was just said or why, even though we thought we understood the words.

Although we think that free will governs our actions, most of the time it does not. Our culture is a stern taskmaster. It imposes its rules of behavior on us from the moment we are born. We learn when to speak up and when to keep quiet. We learn that some facial expressions meet with approval and others provoke a reprimand. We are taught which gestures are acceptable and which are not, and whether we can publicly unwrap a gift; we learn where to put our hands during a meal, whether or not we can make noise with our mouths when we eat, which table utensils to use or not use, and in what fashion we may use them. We learn how to address people in a manner approved by our culture, what tone of voice to employ, what posture is censored and what is praised, when and how to make eye contact and for how long, and countless other things that would be impossible to remember consciously and use all at the same time when interacting socially. As a consequence, this communicative behavior is learned so well that it sinks to a subconscious level, so that when we interact with others we operate on a sort of automatic pilot.

We rarely take note of what we consider “normal” behavior. It is behavior that deviates from our own cultural rules that captures our conscious attention. However, what is especially significant is that, without thinking, we almost always negatively evaluate any behavior that differs from our own, because we ourselves were trained by negative feedback. To use a common expression, we “take offense.” However, we can consciously choose not to take offense. One of the most useful tools we can use when we engage in cross-cultural communication is to be alert for any negative reaction to a person or situation that we experience. We can mentally stop, take a breath, and treat this reaction as a red flag that signals “different cultural convention.” Suspending reaction helps us sidestep the instant negative judgment that provokes irritation or anger; it allows us to consider that the offending behavior may be proper in its own place. In addition, it is certainly possible to learn the most significant rules for behavior prescribed by a foreign culture so that we ourselves can communicate more effectively, as well as better interpret what someone is trying to communicate to us.

When it comes to culture, different does not mean defective.

© Tracy Novinger 2008

See Intercultural Communication: A Practical Guide by Tracy Novinger, available through or Focuses on U.S.-Mexico communication issues.

This article published in the January 2008 issue of Another Day in Paradise magazine (