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Non-Verbal Communication in Central America


By Katya De Luisa

In Costa Rica communication is so much more than the Spanish language. “Ticos” are very adept at nonverbal interaction so if you are a foreigner and unskilled in the language, you can learn how to enhance your communication using these cues.

Words and spoken language are only 40% of our communication. The rest is nonverbal body posturing, gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice and touch. Here

in Costa Rica, Tico’s communicate incorporating the use of all of this.

When talking we use either our intellect in our heads or we speak from the heart or combine the two. Spanish is considered to be a romance language and when speaking it one feels a deeper and immediate heartfelt connection to the other person than most non-romance languages like English or German. English is my native tongue but when I speak Spanish, I feel a fluidity to my words and easy relationship to the other person even though my word usage isn’t perfect. Not many Hispanics seem to notice my mistakes because the heart is more focused on the meaning of what I am saying than if I’m saying it correctly. So even if you have little Spanish, learn to speak what you do know and often. Eventually your heart will teach your brain the language and you’ll be surprised at how much you are able to communicate.

Your tone of voice conveys a lot in Costa Rica. Too often we “Gringos” are customarily loud or when agitated raise our voices. To holler at a Costa Rican is culturally unacceptable and akin to a physical altercation. Your worker will walk off the job even though he has a family to feed, your girlfriend will leave you, and worse yet you will get a reputation in your neighborhood as being the ugly American and it will affect negatively interactions with others.

When angry keep your voice at a level tone; better monotone. Never raise your voice or holler and watch your nonverbal cues. Never make the angry face, or do it while standing with your hands on your hips. Don’t point at the person or poke them; ever. It’s better to walk away, compose yourself and address the situation later or better yet, let it go. If you speak Spanish, never use “you did this or that”. Remember even though you can’t control the circumstances, you can control how you react to them. A lesson I unfortunately learned the hard way in my early years in CR.

Talking with the hands is essential to get your meaning across. Those who speak romance languages like Spanish, Italian or Portugues use exaggerated hand movements to accentuate what they are saying and they are very skillful at it. Incorporate hand movements into all your Spanish conversations, it not only helps convey what you are saying but can really augment the content.

Costa Ricans are huggers and kissers, especially if you are friends or if you have met before. How they hug or kiss your cheek conveys a lot about your prior interaction and their relationship to you When first meeting someone, especially a foreigner, they often tentatively shake your hand. Usually because they figure this is what you expect. If you’ve met before and had a positive interaction, you’ll get a hug and a light kiss to the air next to your ear. If you are friends or had profound interactions you’ll get the tight 30 second hug, and a kiss directly on the cheek. You can always tell the depth of your relationship by the intensity of the touch, hug or kiss.

Facial expressions are a universal communication. Our emotions show on our face, and there are even micro-expressions that aren’t overly apparent but the other person picks them up subconsciously. In this country facial cues are more important than words. Ticos are very good at reading your face.

There are many physical gestures that have great significance especially the nose. You see a friend across the street so you raise your nose up then quickly down in recognition. Your hold your nose on a bus when someone has farted to alert the other passengers the odor is headed their way. Squinch your nose when you don’t like someone and point the direction with your nose when asked where someone went.

It’s crucial one always keeps eye contact, because if you don’t you aren’t trusted. In the US its very common to talk and look away speaking from the side, however in CR they commonly think you aren’t honest, or are hiding something. The eyes are the window to the soul, thus a direct connection to the heart. When you keep eye contact you read the micro-expressions of the eyes which you can’t do if you aren’t looking each other. Ticos always maintain constant eye contact, and if the other Tico person doesn’t, don’t trust them, especially if they speak some English.

English has become a necessary language in this country and even in the primary schools they teach some rudimentary words and phrases. The younger Tico generations understand to succeed in this world you must learn English. In Costa Rica you find many people who can speak it and unfortunately that includes some unscrupulous people, including professionals. Often prices are higher with those who cater to foreigners and historically the most effective thieves are those English speakers who befriend you to help you. Do your homework when it comes to choosing an English-speaking lawyer especially. Just like anywhere you need to have discernment when doing business or trusting those offering to help you navigate CR because you don’t speak the language.

 In Costa Rica we also have gestures helping us to maneuver through traffic. To change drivers side lanes, use directional light but also stick your hand out and point to where you want to go. I use pointing when wanting to have someone stop to let me in a line of traffic and then I blink my light in thanks. If you have a passenger, teach them to stick their head out and gesture the stop sign with palm up for the person in back to allow you in front of them. This is especially effective if your passenger is an attractive woman or an old person. You blink your lights to alert oncoming vehicles there’s a traffic stop or accident in front of them. Honking of horns is a common stress relief in traffic jams; never effective in moving anything, but the drivers feel better. When confronted with a road rage person just blow them a kiss if you are a woman but don’t do this if you are male. Always express thanks when someone is courteous on the road.

Remember, in Costa Rica, learning cultural norms is the most important thing to know; as important as learning the language.

Katya De Luisa has resided in CR since 1980, is a naturalized citizen, artist, freelance writer, dementia educator/consultant and author of “Journey through the Infinite Mind, the science and spirituality of dementia.”

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