Subtle Language

Learning the Spanish language has been a sometimes illusive goal that I’ve  fiercely practiced for the last seven months.  I’ve had my ups and downs – my nights of frustration at not being able to follow the late night, beer laden jumble of conversation and the sudden clarity as the vendors sing-songy jingles and the calls of mothers to children become intelligible.  Each step on the long road to fluency is a joy, rewarded by further understanding and connection with the beautiful people I encounter along the way.

One part of language here is that it encompasses more than simply words.  Communication in Nicaragua is a full body experience.  This is something I witnessed on my first visit to Nicaragua as I watched people stand and act out the stories they tell, using hands, facial expressions, and their bodies as canvasses to make the listener understand the story, to bring the listener into the story.  This body-communication is often facilitated by funny repetitive sounds mimicking the cries of a baby, the cacophony of drums, or the rumble of a car’s engine.  In this way, a late night conversation is both communication and entertainment!

The more subtle use of the body to communicate became clear as I read the body language section of the Blue Moon Nicaragua travel guide that a friend had brought with her on her visit.  On reading those few short paragraphs on communication, I learned that the cheek scrunching people did wasn’t to make a funny face – it was to communicate a question:  ‘how’s that?’, ‘what do you mean?’  I was already hip to using the lips in lieu of an index finger when trying to point to a person thanks to my Peace Corp traveling friend introducing me to that in El Salvador.   Many other aspects of body language here are also understood in US culture – making eye contact and moving the head to one side as an indication that it might be time to scram, or making eye contact and then looking in a direction of a person to ask ‘what’s up with that loco?’

However, even after reading up on that lovely bit of wisdom from the Blue Moon Handbook, I was unaware of the depth that body language and facial expressions can be used to communicate here.  In North America, we’ve really tuned out from this subtle form of communication because so often, we fail to really see each other.  How often do you sit in a restuarant or coffee shop and observe a couple or friends together at a table when each has in hands either a cell phone, tablet, or even a laptop computer on the table in front of them?  Perhaps these friends are communicating verbally to each other, but with a divided attention and one that does not honor the full depth of the person in front of them.

Not that Nicaraguans don’t text or find distractions with their gadgets.  However, I’ve found here that people bring more presence to their interactions, not only listening to what the person is saying but also picking up those other cues from facial and body expression and from the energetic presence.

I learned last night that facial expressions here of anger or displeasure are the equivalent of having a loud argument in public in North America.  Because everybody is so attuned to looking out for these communication cues, everybody is able to  read and recognize the them when they occur.  This is worth noting on a country that runs so much on chisme, or gossip.

Paired with this different of reading of energy and communication is an aversion to direct confrontation.  In Nicaragua, rarely is a harsh word spoken to somebody’s face.  Complaints about behavior or lack of etiquette are often done to family and friends, with tight smiles and constrained politeness offered to the offending party.

For a girl who’s majored in Social Work and learned the good effects of communication and peaceful conflict resolution, this constraint can be maddening.  I like to address issues head on, lest they fester and grow into a deep seated resentment.  I believe that by acknowleging and addressing emotions and feelings, one can then be free of those negative energies and everybody can proceed happily along.

This is where the reading of body language and facial expression comes in handy, though.  In a culture that dislikes direct confrontation, one must be able to tell from other cues when one has overstepped boundaries or offended.  That tight smile might speak volumes to a Nicaraguan, though could easily be overlooked by someone with less discerning observational skills.