Archive for Latino Country of Origin Differences

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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The Supreme Court Needs Diversity

President Obama’s historic nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the supreme court is a positive step for our country. From what I have read, Sotomayor’s life plays as one of the most inspiring Latino success stories; and her accomplishments exemplify what the American dream is all about. However, despite our country’s foundation on diversity, opinions against diversity continue to rule the land. A heated debate is expected to ensue over how her gender and Hispanic heritage could affect her role as a Supreme Court Justice. Critics worry that her background will influence her interpretation of the law. Of course it will. Just as the upbringing of the other Justices shape their own interpretation of the law. How can it not? Am I the only one who finds this whole line of reasoning absurd?

Any person by human nature bases any decision in life on what they know; and what they know comes from their personal education, background, and experiences. This is why very often there are ethnic clashes. Groups of people who share a similar background and upbringing tend to also share a similar point of view on social interactions and behavior. And ethnic groups will be at conflict when they find that what they understand to be true does not correspond with what people in other ethnic segments think and believe. Diversity is key in understanding one another because it brings to light another person’s point of view. We are more likely to educate one another in the presence of diversity and it allows us to place ourselves in somebody else’s shoes. Does it matter when we are talking about a judge who is supposed to only go by the letter of the law? Of course it does!

Judges are constantly called to make interpretations of the law. What is written is not always clear; and sometimes it is not even written at all. A large part of our “laws” are created through the decisions of judges in our rich history of cases. The system works; and case law is proven effective as more and more judges agree in the interpretation an decisions of similar cases. The ultimate court that is called to interpret the law is, of course, the United States Supreme Court. A case does not make it to the supreme court when the law is clear. The Supreme Court is always called to render an interpretation- an opinion. How can a Justice of the Supreme Court render an Opinion without using their cognitive thinking? And how does anyone do that without relying on what they know? They do; of course, and their background and upbringing is always there backing up every opinion.

When I hear that people do not want a Latino Justice because she may be biased by her gender and background, what I hear is that they do not want opinions rendered by Justices who have experienced something other than an Anglo White American upbringing. They are looking for an assimilated background to shape all interpretations. Why are we so afraid of having a perspective that represents so many other Americans in our country? How many Justices grew up in poor neighborhoods? How many had to find a scholarship to make it to law school? How many experienced the struggles that females face in this country to be at an equal stance with males? How many grew up with the difficulties poised by Hispanic discrimination and managed to rise above it all? The Supreme Court, more than any other court in our nation, must benefit from the understanding and clarity that diversity brings!

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Please Stop the Senseless Mexican Discrimination!

Our poor Mexican brothers and sisters were the first to fall victim to the Swine Flu. Mexico City was not prepared; there was no alert from the World Health Organization. Unfortunately, the fatalities continue; and to add insult to injury, many in this country are taking the opportunity to blame Mexicans for the virus. I have received various emails and have seen numerous highly insulting comments on websites, articles, and blogs throughout the Internet. Here is what one ignorant poster commented as a response to commentary from an article on The Denver Post website:

I agree with your statement that their race has NOTHING to do with this. The fact that they are here illegally and eminate from a country that has now given us this deadly disease is what matters. The name of the disgusting country means nothing. The fact that our “leaders” allowed million of citizens from a swine-producing third world nation to infiltrate our country means EVERYTHING.

To make things worse on the discrimination front, the WHO has now changed the name of the virus to the Mexican Flu because “most recent research on swine flu has shown that the virus is not caused by pigs.” Many ignorant people, of course, are taking this to mean that the WHO feels it is caused by Mexicans.

The WHO name change comes after an Israeli official, Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman, said at a news conference on Monday that the reference to pigs is offensive and “we should call this Mexican flu and not swine flu.” This was also reported in the news yesterday morning on MSNBC. While I appreciate being cognitive of religious sensitivities, Mr. Litzman is not being sensitive to the prejudicial implications of this name change.

At a time of crisis we should be uniting as brothers and sisters in humanity and not being divisive with a foolish show of ignorance and discrimination.

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How can Latinos believe in life after death and still be so afraid of death?

As I celebrated Easter today I meditated on the meaning of the resurrection. While interviewing Latinos over the years I have heard many respondents tell me about their devotion to Jesus Christ, the importance of the resurrection, and their faith in life ever after. What may not make a lot of sense at first glance is that, while Hispanics believe strongly in life after death, they also have a dumbfounding fear of death.

The fear of death is very strong in the Latino community. It is a subject that everyone loves to avoid. Yet, the Hispanic reasons for fearing death may be different from those of the general population. Latinos generally believe in life after death. The actual fear of the unknown- which is predominantly the reason why most people fear death, may be to some extent addressed in the Hispanic community by the religious beliefs Latinos hold regarding the afterlife. In fact many Latinos, especially those of Mexican origin, see the afterlife as an end to their Journey of suffering.

We know that suffering and disappointment are part of life, but they cannot destroy us. If even God suffered the crucifixion for us, there must be something good in suffering, especially in suffering for the sake of others, that we don’t fully understand. In our Latino realism, we do not go looking for suffering as if it were something desirable, but neither do we deny it or run away from it. We assume it, transcend it, and dare to celebrate life in spite of it. [Virgilio Elizondo “The Sacred Latino Experience” Americanos – Latino Life in the United States (Little, Brown and Company, 1999) p.20]

Mexicans often see death as the promise of life. In fact, the popular Mexican holiday Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a celebration of life.

In Mexico, this holiday is celebrated at night and in the cemeteries. The family of the departed makes offerings of food and drink and places the traditional flowers, marigolds, at each gravesite. During this offering the family members also offer prayers or speak to the dead. – The day of the Dead is one of the more mystical Hispanic celebrations, and it can be the most fulfilling. It represents a clash of pagan and Christian beliefs, but its message of death as a continuance, not an end, can be uplifting. [Valerie Menard “The Latino Holiday Book” (Marlowe & Company, 2000) pp.110-111]

The subject of death is also addressed by religion in other Latino subgroups. In the book Transitional Villagers [Peggy Levitt “God Is Everywhere- Religious Life Across Borders” (University of California Press, 2001) p.159] the author relates the story of the Dominican immigration to Boston and the Latino strife to maintain their religious beliefs. “Death is viewed as a transition to another place where the deceased, who is present in a different form, can be visited, consulted, and petitioned.” She goes on to say that the inability of Dominican immigrants to visit their diseased relatives at the cemetery in their homeland makes dealing with death much more difficult.

Latinos generally do not fear death because of the unknown. The Latino fear of death includes other areas like:

  1. The fear of not accomplishing the person’s life mission.
    In research I have conducted on this subject Latinos appear to regard death as the ultimate deadline. They see themselves as being placed on earth for a reason, and see their death as the ultimate deadline before which they need to get their life’s purpose accomplished. Religion also plays a large part on this fear. If God brought them to earth with a mission, and they procrastinate or somehow get derailed in doing whatever it is that they feel they are here to accomplish, what will happen when they have to face God?
  2. The physical and emotional suffering one may have to endure as death approaches.
    Latinos also worry about how much they may have to suffer with a terminal illness, accident, or other condition leading to their death. Many Latinos, however, view suffering as a necessary evil and mainly worry about how their suffering will affect their family (see below).
  3. The effect that death may have on the individual’s family and loved ones.
    Most Latinos worry the most about being responsible for the suffering of their loved ones. Their own suffering could be justified as the road to salvation, but in their view they cannot justify inflicting suffering on others. They constantly worry about how their death will affect their family.

In my research I have also learned that moving away from a religion that is largely centered on suffering presents an interesting conundrum for Latinos. In their upbringing they learned that salvation is reached through suffering, yet in the American society they are learning that it is not necessary to suffer. In fact, many Latinos came to the US looking for the American dream- a dream that has little to do with suffering or with life after death. Searching for heaven on earth and striving to reach eternal life are not compatible goals for many Hispanics. Their ingrained religious beliefs from generations ago still linger. In the minds of many Latinos, not suffering in this journey may compromise the hereafter. At that point, the fear of the unknown resurfaces. Generally, however, Latinos can believe in life after death and still fear death because the fears are not usually based on a fear of the unknown.

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Why do most Hispanics stay poor?

At our LinkedIn group discussion a member expressed his disagreement with my ealier post Latinos Are Too Focused on Material Success stating that “the numbers do not show it.”  That is true.  Interestingly, I just came across an article I wrote for Quirks Magazine, which was published in April, 1998.  Eleven years later some of what I wrote there still applies.  Here is a segment of the article pertaining to why Hispanics stay poor.  For the whole article please go here.


The U.S. is the land of opportunity. Over the years, immigrants from all over the world have come to this country and managed to work hard to improve their economic situation. What is different about the Hispanic immigrants? To answer that question, you have to take into account the fact that the times have changed. Today ’s immigrants do not arrive here by breaking all ties with their homelands. While just a century ago people would take a long boat trip across the Atlantic to get to this country, today’s immigrants can move here overnight and go back to visit the following week. They never have to lose touch. From the airlines to the telephone to the television and even the Internet, new immigrants can keep in touch with their homeland.

Even in this country, the Hispanic community keeps in touch by creating its own home away from home. Hispanics have Spanish television, can read most product labels in Spanish, can easily purchase their favorite ethnic food at the local supermarket or bodega, and can socialize with others who speak their language and share their culture. This is indeed very different from the old melting pot culture where immigrants forced their children to forget their mother tongue and become part of the new culture. Hispanics place a high value on being able to maintain their customs, language, and culture. The U.S. freedom allows it, and it is indeed attractive. Yet, I argue that not “melting into the pot” creates a difficult situation that leads to lower income.

By insisting on being “different,” Latinos are promoting discrimination. When Puerto Ricans wear their flag on everything from their cars to their T-shirts, they are making a statement that says, “I am proud of my heritage,” but it is often read as “I am not part of this country.” That leads to a common reaction: “Well, get the heck out!” which is also known as discrimination. Discrimination often leads to a lower income. This is especially true of Hispanic communities that consist of individuals with minimal education and labor skills. These communities depend on the jobs provided by members of an outside community. The number of Hispanic businesses that provide job opportunities to their own community is extremely low, compared to other ethnic groups like Asian Americans. There are exceptions. One, of course, is the Cuban community in Miami, whose Hispanic-owned businesses hire four times as many people than Hispanic- owned businesses in New York City.

Besides discrimination, there are other factors that affect income. To keep their culture, Hispanics often move near other Hispanics in typical Latino neighborhoods. Some of these neighborhoods have deteriorated — victims of crime and drug problems. To complicate matters, public education systems in many Latino neighborhoods are overcrowded and underfinanced. As a result, Hispanic young people are not receiving an equal education. Since English is not the language of choice in most Hispanic neighborhoods, and the schools are not adequate, many Latinos are not proficient enough in English to obtain decent employment. What is worse, because Spanish is not taught in school, many Hispanic Americans grow up not knowing how to read and write in Spanish.

Despite my contention that Latinos would be better off financially if they tried to blend into the American culture, I don ’ t agree with that approach. Looking at the situation from an economic standpoint you must give value to the desire of Hispanics to keep their customs, language and culture. I argue that this value is so high that it justifies whatever negative effects may occur — discrimination, lower income, or even bad neighborhoods. Since the Hispanic population continues to grow at a higher rate than any other minority group, these problems will eventually disappear. Even today, Spanish culture is quickly becoming ingrained into the American culture. Tacos are now as popular as hot dogs and hamburgers in the typical American diet, and Spanish words are becoming part of the American language — ¿Comprende?

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