Archive for June, 2009

Non-Verbal Latino Communication & Social Networking

I have written before about how Latinos prefer to interact at an emotional or spiritual level. Achieving this heightened level of communication means going further than the articulation of words and connecting by relying on information that transcends the spoken language. Is this communication preference limited to Hispanic consumers? Of course not. And it does not apply to all Latinos either; but I am a market researcher, and we are in the business of generalization. My contention is that Hispanics in the U.S. are more likely than non-Hispanic consumers to rely on non-verbal communication and gut feelings in almost every interpersonal encounter. In a prior post I gave some examples of this phenomenon. Here I would like to expand on the subject and explore how this communication style works in the digital world of social networking.

Let’s start by looking into how Hispanics gain this emotional connection. One thing that Latinos overly rely on to gain a better understanding of one another is the use of non-verbal communication cues. The cues include facial expressions, hand and body movement, physical touch, voice pitch, voice sounds (not the articulation of the words), physical appearance, emotional appearance (like teary eyes), and even smell. I did not realize how often I used non-verbal cues to communicate until I started dating a non-Hispanic girl who once asked me why I smacked my lips and made other sounds to convey my feelings, instead of simply expressing them verbally. As I have said in prior articles, Latinos are very emotional creatures; but that does not mean that the emotions are always verbalized. From the loud moaning of a man who who just stubbed his toe, to the exaggerated screams of a mother whose child just took his first step, Latinos excel in the use of sound and facial expressions to convey emotion.

Many of you will know that Latinos are also keen on physical connection. Hugs and kisses are normal in everyday interactions. It is normal for Latino men to greet females with a kiss; even if they do not know each other well. Men also hug each other as a sign of affection. In fact, a very common closing for a business letter in Latino correspondence is “un abrazo” or “a hug.” In interviewing Latinos I sometimes use touch to communicate that I understand and care about what they have to say. Simple gestures like a hand on the shoulder or a handshake are effective. In some instances when a respondent became very emotional I have offered a hug. I don’t know that I have ever used touch in non-Hispanic interviewing. While it may be easy to understand the importance of using physical touch in Latino interactions, you may have more difficulty conceptualizing the role that smell plays in the communication.

Okay, I think we can agree that if a person reeks with body odor, the smell will undoubtedly affect his or her personal interactions! But BO aside, odor is used extensively by Latinos in communicating. Many Hispanics use perfume or cologne to convey their personality; an the smell of a particular brand of perfume becomes a part of who they are. Sometimes the smell is used to convey how much they care about their family. When my daughter Marina came home my mother was at our house with a basket of goodies. Among them was a bottle of “Violet Water,” a cologne that Cubans like to use on babies. My mother explained to my wife (who is not Hispanic) how good it was to use this fragrance because it conveys that you care about your baby. Latinos also use fragrances in other areas to communicate something about them. Colgate Palmolive, for example, has a very successful line of cleaning products called Fabuloso. Most Latinas know that Fabuloso is not a very good cleaner; but they also agree that cleaning is not the main purpose of that product. They buy it because in the Latino culture the smell of products like Fabuloso is extremely important in conveying how a woman takes care of her house and her family. The same holds true for the laundry products they use. The clothing needs to have a particular fragrance. Undoubtedly, the sense of smell is very much a part of the Latino communication process.

Body and hand movement is also extremely important. Many Latinos find it necessary to move their hands in order to communicate effectively. I find myself using hand movements even when I talk on the phone and nobody sees me! I have said many times that if you tie my hands I am unable to speak. Voice pitch and volume is also used extensively among Latinos. This sometimes varies by Latino country of origin. Cubans, for example, are culturally very loud in their communication. In everyday social gatherings Cubans are accustomed to raising their voice to get the group’s attention and are perfectly at ease with all of them talking at the same time. When I moderate focus groups in Miami I have to warn clients about this unique social preference because I need to allow it to happen (to an extend) in order for the communication to flow “normally.”

Given the propensity for Latinos to use non-verbal communication that goes far beyond what can be communicated through text; how do Latinos manage to engage effectively in social networking? The interesting thing is that Hispanics are very fond of social networks like Facebook and MySpace an the Latino communication in those networks is thriving! Why? Because these networks have been successful in digitally emulating non-text communication through the use of photographs, music, recorded voice, video, chat, digital gifts, quizzes, news, status updates, group affiliations, games, personal information, links, and hundreds of add-on applications that often reveal the more personal or emotional side of the user. These “gimmicks” that we reject in business communication are very much a part of what social networking is all about. In some Latino specific networks like MiGente members often set their own color scheme and background music for their profile. All of this contributes to the “personal appearance” of the user and can be compared to the importance of clothing styles or makeup in personal interactions.

Communication on the Internet has moved far beyond the simple emoticons used in text email interactions. Even business networks like LinkedIn can now incorporate visual presentation documents in the member’s profile and applications like Tripit, Amazon reading list, and embedded WordPress blogs (this blog is on my profile). The ways we can now interact online fit very well with the Latino communication preferences. Unfortunately, marketing research has not yet taken full advantage of these new methods of communicating. With the possible exception of some online qualitative research and online research communities that include Facebook style social networks, most of the research that is currently conducted online continues to be static text (read as boring) questionnaires with complicated grids, numeric scales, and unappealing business formatting. This type of research communication, as you can surmise from my writing, does not work very well with Latinos.

Why are we not using visually appealing backgrounds, photographs, sound, and video in online marketing research? In training websites we often see a video of a person who explains what you are looking at on the screen and asks questions. Wouldn’t it be great to have research questionnaires “administered” by a videotaped individual? How about a truly administered survey through a webcam? The technology today even allows us to voice-record open ended responses. When online marketing research catches on with the technology that networks like Facebook use to engage their members, then Latinos will feel more at home in completing an online survey. But in the meantime I may have to continue recommending other methodologies over online for Hispanic research work.

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