Flustered Meetings and Mistranslations: Navigating Ambiguities in a Spanish Workplace

There are many moments of uncertainty at my internship, as is expected in an internship in a foreign country, in my non-native language, and in a new field and environment. I feel like it is only natural that confusion and miscommunications arise when entering such a complex and novel space. Moreover, ambiguity and complications are a natural byproduct of all new work situations. I can remember a wide array of moments containing unclear directions and uncertainty in my past internships, from my time as a features journalist on a legal news site to working in a microbiology lab. Adjusting to new environments always involves some levels of awkwardness and blunders. If there are no moments that feel a little strange, I feel like it is fair to say that you are not fully immersing yourself into the new experience.

However, regardless of whether you expect ambiguity, it can still feel incredibly weird, cringe-inducing, and at times, utterly humiliating in the moment. My experiences here interning at a law firm in Madrid were no exception. In fact, here in Spain there is the added bonus of culture clashes, cultural miscommunications, and confusions arising from me not understanding something in Spanish. One example of a commonly occurring unclear situation that I end up in is when my comprehension of Spanish fails or I lack certain Spanish vocabulary. Although my Spanish level is decently proficient, it’s definitely not fluent, especially not in professional settings. This lack of fluency is exacerbated by the fact that I work in a corporate law firm, meaning that much of the vocabulary that I have to encounter contains legal jargon, accounting and financial terms, and a lot of tech words, all of which are usually missing from my vocabulary. There are times when I cannot understand what my coworkers actually want when they ask for my help with a task. To navigate this, I have asked them to send me the tasks they want my help with over email, so I can always consult an online dictionary if needed. Also, I write down all the new vocabulary that I hear during meetings into a notebook and translate it later to get more accustomed to the jargon. 

Another ambiguous concept that I deal with every day at work arises from the difference in cultural professional values between Spain and the United States. In the United States, the emphasis is always on work and maximizing efficiency. It is expected that once you receive a task from your boss, you have to get it done immediately and as fast as possible. Moreover, when your boss comes into your office to check in on your progress, you are supposed to emphasize how much work you have done. So, it has been a very strange experience to both have the expectation of getting work done efficiently, coupled with a more relaxed attitude about deadlines here in Spain. For them, too much eagerness and always pushing yourself to get a task done as quickly as possible is unintuitive. They much prefer that you work more slowly, but more carefully, and communicate progress emphasizing the content of the work, not the amount of work completed. 

I remember a specific instance when my boss had asked me to write a 2000 word report based on interviews with thought leaders in the industry about the future of investment and startup trends. He wanted me to elaborate on some ideas I had regarding how our law firm could expand and branch into new business models. So, when he stopped by my office to check in on the progress I was making, I immediately rushed to show him how much I had completed, just like I would have in the United States. My boss just looked at me incredulously and said, “Cálmate”, which means, “take it easy” or “calm yourself”. 

Even though he had come to check in on my progress, my eagerness to update him on just how much work I’ve completed felt weird to him. Instead, he only wanted to know about the content of the work I had done, and whether I had any new insights and ideas. Check-ins like these were very unclear and ambiguous for me before. I never knew what the expectations were when it came to what I had to communicate to my boss. Nowadays, I have been navigating these check-in meetings by emphasizing the content that I have learned and ideas that I have generated over how I am navigating deadlines and the quantity work I have completed. It is not a foolproof system (there are definitely other uncertain moments), but I have found that slowly, over time, things are getting more comfortable and less awkward in these meetings.