Natalia Sarro is an Argentine Psychologist & Intercultural Trainer based in BA. As founder of Nómadas Globales Argentina, Natalia is one of the first Intercultural Specialists in Argentina dedicated to the design and delivery of customized Intercultural Training programs for the Buenos Aires community of expats, international students, travelers, and all those interested in exploring and understanding cultural differences in a world of diversity. Every week she organizes fun & interactive Intercultural Coffee Meetings for Expats & Argentinos in Palermo to raise awareness on challenges of expat life in BA and Porteños mentality.
As an expat in Buenos Aires, it is vital to understand that porteños (BA local citizens) have their own cultural rules about how to express their emotions, build relationships and communicate effectively with others. Are they better or worse rules than yours? Obviously not. However, failing to become culturally aware of these differences may take you down the dangerous path of misinterpretation.
A scenario: your plane just landed in Buenos Aires. You are coming to visit your good old Argentine friend. You haven´t seen her for several years and you know she will be waiting for you in the Airport.
As soon as you step out of aduana (customs), there she is: big smile, jumping, waiving hands and shouting your name as if she was completely alone in the whole airport. This makes you feel a bit embarrassed. When you finally approach her, she throws her arms around your neck and holds you tight. To your surprise, she suddenly begins to shed tears of joy. She cries and tells you how much she missed you.
You are really happy to see her too, but… isn´t she overreacting? Would you respond to your friend´s emotions in a similar way?
No right or wrong answer.
Fons Trompenaars, the author of the best-selling book, Riding the Waves of Culture, states that reason and emotion influence relationships between people. Trompenaars describes a variety of manners in which people across cultures relate to one another. One of them is the “neutral vs emotional orientation.”
Sounds too obvious? Let´s get into the details.
When we interact with others, is it acceptable to express our emotions openly? Or should we keep our feelings for ourselves?
Believe it or not, affection is usually the result of convention. Anger, joy, sadness or surprise are not equally exhibited in all cultures (neither in the same degree nor in the same way). Personal space, body language, gestures and tone of voice are also culturally determined.
Unlike Anglo-saxon and some North European countries, Argentina is an emotional-oriented culture. This means that Argentines have a tendency to reveal thoughts and feelings in public, both through verbal and body language. Argentines will usually let their emotions flow easily through touching, a rather loud tone of voice, laughter and facial expressions, to name a few. Soccer fans will scare you off with their highly emotional shouting of, “Goooooool,” every time their favorite soccer team marks a score. Don´t get surprised if Argentine mums kiss their children in public, or raise their tone of voice unexpectedly to shout at them in the bus when the little ones are not behaving properly.
On the other hand, neutral cultures (such as Japanese, UK or Norwegian) tend to reveal their emotions quite rarely. They usually prefer to leave affection outside of interpersonal relations, as they consider that intensive emotional exhibitions should be controlled.
It is important to note that this is not stereotyping. Trompenaars theory is based on extensive research and it does not indicate that all people from one culture will react equally. The main point is that cultural orientations show us degrees of likelihood. This means that, in given circumstances, individuals from one culture will tend to behave under certain cultural norms, in comparison to individuals from other cultures in similar circumstances.
Why is cultural awareness important?
So at this stage, you understand that there are emotional- and neutral-oriented cultures. And you can tell that Argentina is closer to the affective ones. Perfect. So next question is: why would an expat need to explore their own emotional reactions when encountering Argentines?
Trompenaars gives us a good reason for this. When we express ourselves, we usually expect confirmation of our feelings and thoughts in the response of others. In other words, if my approach is highly emotional, I will probably seek a direct, emotional response in return. However, if I prefer to keep my emotions under control, I will expect a neutral, controlled response as well. When I interact with a person who doesn´t abide by my cultural norms, things can get difficult.
At this point, can you imagine the cross-cultural misunderstandings that can take place when neutral and emotional oriented individuals meet?
Here are a couple of everyday examples:
If you are an expat coming from a neutral culture, you may interpret ups and downs in speech of Argentines and constant interruptions as an indicator of lack of seriousness or professionalism.
Did you ever wonder what leads Argentines to exhibit this voice pattern? They often show their deep involvement and interest in the conversation by raising or changing their tone of voice. In many Latin American cultures, interrupting their counterparts before s/he finishes talking is a signal of interest in what is being said. Furthermore, silence could be interpreted as a failure in communication.
As a neutral oriented individual, you may feel that your personal space is threatened if you just meet an Argentine stranger (usually female) who attempts to kiss you on the cheek in a social event. Hey, don´t get annoyed so easily. Your Argentine stranger is just doing what is socially expected for a first encounter: being polite.
If she is not culturally aware of your neutral orientation and if you fail to emulate her behavior, she may interpret your detached demeanor as dislike or disdain. Not a good start, right?
A good piece of advice for neutral oriented individuals is to learn to tolerate Argentines´ emotionality without feeling intimidated. It´s not personal!
As an expat in BA, it is vital to understand that Porteños have their own cultural rules on how to build relationships and communicate effectively with others. Are they better or worse rules than yours? Obviously not. However, failing to become culturally aware of these differences may take you down the wrong path of interpretation.