Lost in (Cultural) Translation

High-context communication and low-context communication are often used to compare and contrast how different countries and cultures approach conversations. High-context communication countries such as Spain derive a lot of their meaning within conversations from the general context, the location of the dialogue, the tone and emotions used, and any underlying knowledge used in the conversation. Conversely, low-context communication countries and cultures like the United States tend to favor a more simple, explicit approach. They rely on clarity, exactness, and will go out of their way to clear up potential miscommunications to avoid all confusion. 

While very few countries and cultures fall towards one extreme or the other, there is usually a link between how diverse a country is and the communication style it uses. High-context countries tend to be more homogenous, with similar socioeconomic statuses, education levels, cultural identities, religions, etc. Speakers in high-context countries can make assumptions about their conversation partners’ knowledge and way of thinking which is reflected in their more nuanced and implicit style of communicating. Low-context countries, on the other hand, tend to be much more diverse, with a focus on individual identity over group identity. Due to the fact that most people come from different backgrounds and have different lived experiences, the key to good communication is not to assume anyone has the same context as you do and very clearly express everything in a way that anyone can follow.

From what I have observed, Spanish communication styles do fit with a lot of the tendencies of high-context countries. Spain is a much more homogenous culture than the United States: everyone grew up watching the same movies and listening to the same music, it is more ethnically similar, immigrants make up a much smaller proportion of the population, almost everyone is either Catholic or raised in a culture with Catholic overtones, people are socioeconomically pretty similar, most people hold at least a high school diploma, etc. As a result, I have noticed that a lot of Spanish people make references to things completely unknown to me or assume that most people they talk to have similar lived experiences. For instance, I was not raised Catholic, yet a lot of the jokes or comments people make in Spain are tied to experiences with growing up around the Catholic church. In fact, many of their common expressions and swear words to convey surprise or indignation are derived from Catholicism, such as “hostia”, which literally means “communion wafer”. Thus, occasionally Spanish conversations are beyond my grasp, which can be confusing and frustrating. 

When I am with my host family or at my internship, the assumptions of similar context extend beyond the culture. People often bring up other people by name into the conversation without ever defining or explaining who they are to me, even when I have never heard of them before. In the United States, I am used to people temporarily pausing their conversations to fill someone in about who a person is in order to fully include newer people into the conversations. This practice just is not a thing in Spain. If you do not understand something or know a person that was mentioned, it is on you to interrupt and ask because no one will stop to make sure everyone is included in the conversation by providing commentary or definitions. 

Another thing that is different about Spain’s communication style is that it is very common and normalized to talk over people and interrupt them. For me, this was incredibly strange and disarming. For one thing, when you are still learning a foreign language, everyone talking over one another is very difficult to follow. You are truly lost in the sauce, if you will. Moreover, in the United States, it is considered the peak of rudeness to interrupt someone while they are speaking or to talk over someone, especially in the workplace. There is even a campaign right now in America where women are calling out their male colleagues who excessively interrupt them as sexist. So, when I first encountered this phenomenon and was interrupted and talked over at work, I was incredibly offended. I thought they were belittling me and everything I was trying to convey. The same experience was repeated with new Spanish friends and with my host family. 

Later, once it was explained to me that interrupting people is not considered rude in Spain and it is just the way people communicate with each other, I was much less frustrated with the situation. However, a new problem posed itself. I had no idea when it was ok to interrupt people and insert myself into conversations, or how to even do so in a polite way. I had never intentionally interrupted someone before, so I was incredibly hesitant to start doing so now. As a result, I came across as rather shy and quiet to my coworkers and my new friends, despite never being considered shy before. I am currently working on pushing myself to interrupt more, and while it is getting easier, it still feels rude to me.