Understanding the Essence of Communication Requires Observation, Especially Across Cultures, i.e., e-mail blows

Sunset-50I have been attending language school now for four days, four hours a day.  There are just three of us in the class and the pace is breath-taking at my age–truly grueling.  The 20 year old Swiss student seems to be having no problem, but the 40ish year old and I are whirling, although he knows a lot more Spanish that I.  But I observed something strange on the first day of class.  We were rapidly being quizzed and I noticed that our teacher was giving us cues.  It was subconscious at first, but it made its way into my conscious.  When we were on the right track, she would make a clucking noise, kind of like a clicking sound by rolling her tongue against the roof  of her mouth.  If this were say a phone conversation or e-mail, I would have missed this whole system of clicks and kind of kissing sounds and tisk tisk sounds that indicated we were correct, wrong or we were ready to move on.  Lots of claps were interspersed with the clucks when she was particularly pleased and had to show  us something new.  Another student told me at dinner tonight that she just realized her teacher makes strange clucking noises, too.

I thought these odd clucks, clicks and tisk tisk noises may have been peculiar to my teacher, but then I started noticing many Ticos communicating this way.  At dinner last night at an open air soda as the cafes on the beach are called, I watched an older woman, the wife and mother and owner of the restaurant watching a Mexican soap opera on the flat screen TV above the bar.  (Don’t get the wrong idea.  The restaurant had a dirt floor, was about 95 degrees, the family’s living room was next to my table outside under a tin roof, and there was a constant flow of her sons bringing in surfboards from their apparent daytime surf lesson business.)  Anyway, the mother was making the same clucking noises when her husband would say something to her or she had something to say about her sons.

The four sons, all in their twenties had their own system of sounds.  I had heard these sounds on the beach during football games (soccer) and volleyball.  It is a kind of high-pitched yodeling that reminds me of wild animals trying to attract mates.  With all due respect to Ticos, I’m sure all young men around the world have their own version of weird sounds for this purpose.  But as the guys walked in with surfboards on their heads in their bathing suits one after another and walked by my table, they all yodeled.  After placing the surfboard on the rack, they’d walk past my table again, this time dancing and singing some song, swaying their  hips.  I found it quite humorous and it was definitely a form of communication that could not have been expressed via e-mail.  I received a few, “Lo siento’s” and “Disculpeme’s” so the yodeling, singing and dancing was clearly a nice little show.

I also like watching Ticos order from Ticas at restaurants.  More often than not, the order is followed by a wink and a kissing sound from the Tico, followed by an eye roll from the Tica.

All of this gets me to one of my favorite topics:  e-mail communication.  Personally, I think it should be used to write basic information such as who, what, when and where to meet.  Important information that has an emotional content especially needs to be communicated in person, or on the phone at least.  The reason is all that is lost in the communication from words alone.  There is too much room for misinterpretation.  My teacher’s clucks and clicks and claps said a lot more  than, “You’re answer is incorrect.”  Her cluck said I was on the right track which probably would have made me answer differently and even if I didn’t, her click would have said it was okay.

I’ve had minor problems turn into major setbacks because of e-mail misinterpretations.  I actually feel so strongly about it, I will not engage in e-mail communication concerning sensitive emotional issues such as where an apology is due absent some reason the person cannot pick up the phone or meet.  It’s cowardly to just spill your guts in an e-mail and not see the other person’s face or allow an exchange of information.  It is a one-way street into the cloud.  You do not even know if the person ever received your e-mail.  And if they did, you do not see their reaction to it.

So here I am learning a new language, but realizing it is more than the words.  So I may not get the preterite and imperfect correct all the time.  I do understand my teacher’s clucking and clicking, the non-verbal communication that is not in the written materials she handed out.  I also know the surfers were saying a lot more to me about themselves than “sorry” and “excuse me.”  And in my opinion, saying anything in an e-mail that will evoke an emotional response is just a cop out.  Better to call me up and cluck.

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