I’m always leery of certain words that seem out of context when speaking in a language other than my own. So when the word “amor” (love) kept coming up in my conversation in Spanish with the Super Shuttle driver on the way to LaGuardia Airport Sunday night, I finally stopped and said “No comprendo”…I don’t understand.
As it turns out Carlos was from Colombia and he explained that in Colombia when you thought someone was nice or pretty or friendly, you called them “amor” (love) or even more common, he said, was “mami” (I’m assuming the equivalent of mommy.) “Oh,” I’m thinking, “there goes 40 years of women’s lib out the window.”
“Um, in the US women might be offended,” I cautiously offered.
“Why?” he asked, incredulous. “It’s a compliment!”
Now fast forward 45 minutes later and I’m on the plane and the flight attendant comes by to collect trash. I had pre-separated the cans so she says, in English, “thanks, love.” “Oh my goodness,” I thought…that’s twice in one night!”
So I say “wait a minute, I have to ask you…I just had a conversation with a man from Colombia on the way to the airport and he said it’s common to call people ‘love,’ but I thought he was just getting fresh with me!
She said “Noooo. In fact, when someone’s really nice we call them Mamita, or Mami.”
For Carlos I suggested that women might think he was calling them ‘old’ if he called them ‘Mami,’ to which he responded that people in the US were more militant, and perhaps needed to relax a little.
For the flight attendant, who self identified as “Puerto-riqueño” she was vivacious and friendly and charming. And her unsolicited confirmation made it sound like this was a possibly Latin-based cultural habit (I’ve just made a huge leap to a generalization).
I know, here is the point in the post where I give you brilliant advice and we all stop and admire how smart I am. But, unfortunately, there’s too much going on here.
What do you think?
- I, of course, thought when Carlos said amor he was making a pass at me—I was afraid the conversation was becoming inappropriate, so I clammed up. In US culture, maybe it was inappropriate—or was it? In the workplace of course you don’t want your boss using terms of affection, but isn’t someone saying “thanks, love” more pleasant than “what do YOU want” in a service economy?
- Should someone have to censor their cultural habits because of gender? The female flight attendant was giving me special attention when she was extra-friendly with me. Carlos apparently used the same “culturally appropriate” language, but I was wary.
- Should both have been expected to adapt their own culturally acceptable use of language to the American marketplace, which can be, as Carlos said, “militant?”
- Finally, should I have even offered to speak Spanish to Carlos, the driver, in the first place. It was clear he didn’t speak much English, but it can also be considered offensive to begin speaking Spanish ‘uninvited’—especially if someone is trying to speak English. I took a risk–I had overheard him speaking Spanish on the radio, and I was the last one in the Super Shuttle, so I struck up a conversation.
…oh, Geez, did you hear that…”I” struck up the conversation. Did he think I was hitting on him because I was being friendly?
What do you think? What’s been your experience, communicating across language barriers?
photo credit: toastforbrekkie