Archive for Language & Communication

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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Latinos Communicate at a Spiritual Level

 There is something peculiar about Latino interactions. Our communication goes much further than what is simply verbalized by the spoken words. We prefer to connect at an emotional, or at what I prefer to call a spiritual level. In my work interviewing Latinos I have witnessed this peculiarity in a consistent basis. Latinos generally feel more comfortable dealing with people when there is an established emotional bond among them. Yes, I know, almost everyone does; but Latinos are different in that they seek this emotional connection in almost every daily interaction. The connection with the person is almost more crucial that the verbal communication itself.

Perhaps my point is best described through examples. Have you ever been to a Latino supermarket or neighborhood store? A large supermarket chain in the northeast hired me once to understand why Latinos shop at what they considered to be low quality stores. “We do not get it,” my client said; “we are loosing customers to a store that is not very clean, is totally disorganized, carries very little variety of merchandise, and is more expensive than ours on almost everything!” I visited the Latino store in question and interviewed many of its customer. Their loyalty to the store had little to do with the merchandise they carried or the price point of the products offered; they shopped there because they felt at ease interacting with the employees. Here is a typical customer comment.

“I like coming here because I can talk to the butcher about his family; and the cashier knows who I am. The employees care about me and I care about them. In other places they try to rush you through the check out and do not care to chit-chat. If I am dealing with people, I like to feel like I know them.”

On another project a large insurance company wanted to understand the importance of having Latino sales representatives. They were of the opinion that the most important aspect in selling their services were the details of the plan and their pricing structure. They had translated their brochure into Spanish and were disappointed in the Hispanic receptivity. In talking to their customers and agents over several focus group interviews I, once again, came across the importance of connecting at an emotional level.

“I do not care to read the details of the plan or for the salesperson to give me a dissertation about the benefits. I prefer to deal with a Latino agent because they are more likely to understand what I want. My current agent knows me and my family well and he cares to ask how we are doing. I trust him personally, so I trust that what he recommends is good for me. A friend at work once convinced me to meet with an agent who had a very structured sales presentation; I did not trust him at all.”

A good friend of mine who is not Latino once told me the story of how his company, a liquor company, went about securing a merger with a Mexican brandy manufacturer. A team from the American company was sent to Mexico to finalize the details of the deal with the owner of the Mexican company. Their task was to convince the Mexican owner of the viability of the deal. They were prepared with all their financial backup, analytical charts, reports, and their laptop computers. They were picked up at the airport by an employee of the Mexican company who took them, to their surprise, to the private residence of the company owner. The were greeted there by the owner, a few employees, and the owner’s family. They ate, drank and shared stories with the Mexican family until someone from the American team asked when they were scheduled to discuss business. At that point the owner of the Mexican company said, “I just needed to know you better, they deal is sealed. You can work out the details with my people in the morning.”

All of these examples point out the importance that Latinos place on communicating using something that goes beyond words and facts. In Latino interactions we pay a lot of attention to how we feel about the person we are communicating with and rely heavily on visual, tactual, and other non-verbal cues. Touching, kissing, hugging, storytelling, tangents, and verbalizing feelings are all important components in Latino interactions. Through our unstructured style of telling stories and going on tangents we get to learn about each other. We seem to unconsciously monitor how the other person reacts and pay close attention to how we feel about those reactions. We use exaggerated non-verbal and verbal expressions to communicate feelings because we know how crucial it is to connect at the emotional level. I find that Hispanics do this even if they are not consciously aware of doing it.

In researching Latinos one has to be keenly aware of how Latinos interact and how they prefer to communicate. Not surprisingly, qualitative research works very well with Latinos because it lends itself to our peculiar communication style. Online research, however, is often problematic- not necessarily because Latinos are not online; but rather because the methodology currently relies on very structured text questionnaires and ignores the other important communication components. In a future posting I’ll touch on how Latinos are bringing their unique communication style to the online world and how it is indeed possible to build online spiritual interactions.

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“U.S. Hispanics need to learn to speak English!” Says who?

Many people get very upset when they hear of someone who has been in this country for years and does not speak any English; and the failure to learn English appears to be increasingly more prevalent among Hispanics. It seems to be an issue that strikes a chord with many Americans. “Why are they not making an effort to learn to speak English like all other immigrants did?” I venture to say that the main reason why many Latinos are not learning English as fast as others did before is because our society no longer requires it. That’s right; my contention is that, as a society, we give Latinos permission to keep their culture and language; and consequently, learning English becomes much more difficult than what other immigrants experienced years ago.

When other big immigration groups came into this country a few generations ago the situation was very different from what it is today. Many early immigrants made the hard decision to come to America with an understanding that they were breaking ties with their old country. Learning a new culture and a new language was not a choice. Our society was a true melting pot and immigrants were expected to fully assimilate into the American culture. They complied. Ever wonder why the children and grandchildren of the Italian immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island in the late 1800s never learned how to speak Italian? These early immigrants understood the importance of becoming American in every respect; and that included speaking only English. Speaking Italian was not important; in fact, it was detrimental in a society that expected assimilation- but things have changed; and assimilation is no longer expected. We are no longer melting into one pot because we no longer believe in that antiquated idea of the melting pot.

It amazes me how the same people who are troubled when everyone around them is speaking Spanish will turn to me and remark on how “important” it is that I teach my children Spanish. “You should speak Spanish to them at home,” they will say. While I wholeheartedly agree that it is important for Latinos to teach their children how to speak Spanish, I want to emphasize that this was never important before. The American society now understands that we live in a multicultural world and that knowing more than one language is beneficial. Our society now also supports (and even exalts) diversity. It is now considered appropriate to uphold and celebrate diversity, especially when it comes to culture and ethnicity. Forcing everyone to melt into one homogeneous pot is no longer considered appropriate.

While our country was founded on the idea of diversity, the practice of diversity was never as alive as it is today. With diversity comes not only permission to speak the language of our ancestors, but also the empowerment to maintain every aspect of our ethnicity. The American society promotes this understanding at many different levels. At a commercial level Latinos see most product labels and instructions written in English and Spanish; ATM machines ask us for our language of preference; and telephone companies insist that we keep in touch with our relatives in Latin America. From a government perspective most services are also offered and/or communicated in Spanish. At a community level there are hundreds of neighborhoods across the country were everyone speaks Spanish. Can someone in one of these neighborhoods get along perfectly well without ever having to learn English? Absolutely! Our society allows it.

We cannot as a society promote diversity and the use of the Spanish language and then wonder why some Latinos are having difficulty learning English. Everyone knows that it is much easier to learn a foreign language when you live in a foreign country and are immersed in a society that only speaks that language. In our society we speak English; but we also speak Spanish. For some Latinos learning English while living in a neighborhood where everyone speaks Spanish is akin to an American student taking a foreign language in school and not grasping it because nobody around them speaks that language. We need to stop pretending that our society expects Latinos to speak English when everything is laid out to make it easy for these new immigrants not to learn the language.

NOTE: Please do not take this opinion to mean that I do not feel that Hispanics should learn the English language. I believe that speaking English in our society is extremely important and encourage everyone in our Latino community to make every effort to learn the language. Being able to speak English opens the door to a myriad of new opportunities for success and paves the way to achieving the always cherished American dream.

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The Other Side of Machismo

 If you are not Hispanic or are not enthralled with the Latino culture you may think that the concept of Machismo is an American stereotype of the quintessential Latino man.  There are many misconceptions regarding Latinos; but the concept of Machismo is definitely not mistaken- it is real!  There are, however, many different ways to describe Machismo.  To many Latinos it is simply the belief that a real man needs to strive to be the most manly he can possibly be.  The word machismo comes from the word “macho” or male; and it is often defined as exaggerated manliness.  In Latin America it is common for “the man of the house” to be portrayed as the master of his domain.  Latinas do not disagree; because in the traditional Latino family the man is supposed to be in charge.  A Latina wife wants her husband to be also seen by others in the community as manly.  As a result, most Latinas that I interview say that their husband is the head of their household.  Further probing often paints a different picture; but the pretension is always to uphold the male’s position of dominance.

There is a fine line between Machismo and male chauvinism.  One thing is to pretend that the man is always in charge; while a very different situation is to actually have a man dominating a woman.  In my interviews with Hispanics I have witnessed many instances of Machismo crossing over to the realm of chauvinism; but those cases exists across all cultures.  The Machismo that I feel is unique to the Latino community is the cultural acceptance of the pretension by both males and females that the man is actually in charge.  This charade goes on in the U.S. Hispanic community despite the fact that Latinas in this country have managed to move away from the cultural tendencies of Marianismo(1).  Why then do we continue to ensure that machismo stays alive by exaggerating the male manliness in the Hispanic behavior?

I have a theory.  We rely on Machismo because we (Latino men) are too emotional.  Being emotional is not considered a particularly manly characteristic.  The fact that Hispanic men are emotional is no secret; it has been very well documented and is often portrayed in the media as a typical Latino male point of difference from non-Hispanic men.  In fact, just yesterday I was watching the movie Spy Kids with my daughter and was reminded of how far Hollywood has gone in substantiating the fact that Latino men cry.   At the climatic conclusion of the movie, the father character (played by Antonio Banderas) meets his long lost brother- a rough macho man played by Danny Trejo.  In the exchange Danny’s character sheds a tear, at which point the brother comments in a comical fashion “Latinos!”  I laughed at that when I saw the movie for the first time in the theater, and I laughed again yesterday.  How true!

I remember my father telling me as a child not to cry because “men do not cry.”  Men may not cry in other cultures; but Latino men have trouble separating themselves from those darn Latino emotions.  My father was not one to preach about not crying, because he would get emotional with something as mundane as watching a parade!  But he countered his emotional nature with a good dose of Machismo; and I think we all do to an extend.  This is especially the case here in the U.S. where many men are not as emotional by nature and would perceive an emotional tear as male weakness or even sissyness.   So, what do we do?  We step up the Machismo a couple of notches!

There is another trick that we use to counter the portrayal of being sissy.  Being emotional is a quality more often associated with females; which is why emotional men can be seen as being effeminate.  The best way to battle that position and show our manliness is to demonstrate that we are better at getting the attention of the girls.  A womanizer is not a sissy; and Giacomo Casanova himself was known to win the women’s affection by using his emotional nature.  So, if our Machismo is not convincing enough we can always fall back on positioning ourselves as the Latin Lovers!

  1. Traditional Latina roles dictate that females are supposed to live as a martyr in order to satisfy the needs of their family.  This cultural trait is also traced to the Hispanic religious background that is heavily rooted in Catholicism.  Some have referred to this tendency of self-sacrifice as Marianismo (after the Virgin Mary).   Marianismo is considered the female counterpart to Machismo.  (Stevens, Evelyn P. “Marianismo: The Other Face of Machismo in Latin America,” Wilmington: Jaguar books on Latin America ; no. 7, 1994)

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Hispanic or Latino?

Today I was asked the question again; do you say Hispanic or Latino? My response is usually quick; I use the terms interchangeably. But the reality is that there is more behind the question; which is why it pops up so often. The term Hispanic as it is used in the United States was introduced to classify a group of people that we had difficulty classifying otherwise. It started appearing in the U.S. census and other government forms in the 1960s and was picked up by researchers as a standard demographic characteristic. Businesses also began to refer to the Latino consumers target as the “Hispanic market.” In contrast, the term Latino has different roots. In Spanish we have always used the term to describe an individual from “Latin America” and it is a commonly used Spanish word worldwide.

I like using the term Hispanic in business because I feel that it more clearly identifies the Latino consumers who live in the United States. In fact, I often say that there are no Hispanics outside of the United States. In Mexico there are Mexicans, in Puerto Rico there are Puerto Ricans, and in Cuba, well… Cubans, you get my drift. But in this country Latin Americans are very often classified as Hispanics. I learned to be Hispanic in the United States!

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