You may know how to speak Spanish, but if you don’t know how to use it, you won’t be talking for long. But I’m here to help. So hear me out. Okay? Just hear me out. What I’ve got to tell you might be a big help, so just hear me out. (Spoiler alert: that was your first lesson.)
The thing is this. Spanish people love to chat. If there’s one defining characteristic of Spanish people in general, it’s that they are extremely social people. It’s one of the joys of living in Spain. The simple act of asking for directions can often lead to a lively and wide-ranging discussion of everything from science to the arts to politics to the best way of cooking artichokes. And at the end of it you exchange phone numbers. This is if you are talking one-on-one. If there’s a group involved, all of these discussions normally occur simultaneously in a cacophonous display of the simple fun of being with other people. And then everyone goes out for coffees. I’m not exaggerating. It happens.
You might say that chatting is something of a sporting competition in Spain, as in, who can speak the most over any given period of time. And to do that requires interrupting. Don’t take it personally just because people won’t let you finish a thought without talking at the same time and thereby trying to wrest control of the conversation away from you. It’s just the way things are done. The problem is, if you don’t speak Spanish very well, you are pretty much doomed. You can’t leave even the smallest gap between words because that’s practically an invitation to interrupt, or at the very least, a sign of weakness in your conversational dominion.
There are, however, a few things you can do. It’s particularly instructive to watch a conversation between two masters of the craft, and this usually means older folk. The abuelos (grannies and grandpas) of Spain have much to teach. They all wear the same thing, so they’re on the same ground to begin with. And both are determined to out-talk the other person, while still being legitimately interested in what the other has to say. But often there comes a time when you actually have a good point to make, and you may have squandered your allotted time in an excessive and poorly paced buildup and the other person is losing interesting and circling your soliloquy like a hungry shark. And then just when you get to the meat of it, the other person jumps in with enthusiasm and you’re finished if you don’t act quickly.
Hand gestures, amigo. Hand gestures. If you have any hope of holding on to the conch, you have to use hand gestures. At this moment, what is required is an outstretched palm at 45 degrees, roughly at waist level and aimed at an imaginary spot roughly one meter behind where your companion is standing. At the same time, you say, espera, espera. That means wait, hold on a sec. This is also an open acknowledgement that your time is coming to an end very quickly, so make your point fast.
This, however, doesn’t always work, which means you’ve got to up your game. That’s when you go for the slightly more direct, escucha, or escúchame. (Listen, or listen to me.) The trick to delivering this well and not coming off a little rude is you have to say it in a certain way. You have to physically get across that while you realize they would love nothing more than to cut you off and take over, you’ve got something to say that they are truly going to like and that’s when you lay it down: come on, just hear me out. So what you do is smile a bit, raise your eyebrows, and slowly nod your head in a way that suggests, “Just wait: you’re honestly going to flip out when you hear this.” You can’t give up an inch here. If you’re close enough, put a hand on the other person’s shoulder and talk over them, saying firmly, “Escucha, escucha. Escúchame…”
Note the repetition. This is critical. Milk it. It buys you a little time to collect your thoughts and emphasizes the point you have something worthwhile to say. But don’t hesitate or all is lost. Milk each repetition a little each time and it may give you just the kind of gravity needed to finish your point. You have to milk it.