How to get your point across in Spain, 101

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.

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11 Responses to How to get your point across in Spain, 101

  1. Mouchacha July 19, 2012 at 20:57 #

    Bwuahahhhaaa! First I read the article, then I clicked the link to see the photos and just burst into an out loud laugh. Indeed, the abuelos are all wearing the same thing!

    • Mike Randolph July 20, 2012 at 11:32 #

      It’s almost like a uniform. Funny. But hey, they look great!

  2. Bev R July 20, 2012 at 14:23 #

    Pithy. A well made argument. Wait a minute, let me finish… Like mouchacha, when I wasn’t laughing out loud I had a smile on my face. I’ve been through it more than once, at first to my chagrin, but in the end philosophically, in total acceptance of the fact that I needed to hone my interruption skills.

    • Mike Randolph July 20, 2012 at 14:44 #

      Don’t be shy! Interrupt away. You can always lead into it by shaking your head in disagreement, which helps set the stage for something like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ And then comes your interruption. Practice by having a conversation with someone while wearing soundproof headphones…that should do the trick!

  3. Julvic July 21, 2012 at 12:48 #

    The photos complement the essay so vividly you think you are watching a documentary. This is really funny, warm funny.

  4. Íñigo A (Umami Madrid) July 23, 2012 at 12:41 #

    It’s SO true, after living in Spain most of my life I still can’t get used to the interrupting and not listening – my family is specially good at it – when we get together no-one listens to each other and they – we – all talk at the same time!
    Great text and fantastic photos ;)

  5. Mike Randolph July 23, 2012 at 12:55 #

    Thanks Iñigo. It’s the same thing with my family in Spain. I guess the idea is that if nobody is going to listen to any one person, let’s just all talk at once and at least we all get to say what we want!

    • Katie August 16, 2012 at 16:43 #

      Body language and hand gestures truly are a universal language.

  6. Marta May 19, 2013 at 15:14 #

    So funny! Can’t decide what I enjoy the most: your photos or your little stories. Superb!
    Saludos a todos from Spain

  7. joseba bartolome October 10, 2013 at 19:05 #

    Oh yes. I identify with the author of this post at all. I’m from Spain and I have to confess that It get on my nerves and I can’t avoid it. It seems if everybody wanted to tell his/her problems the others without listening to the others. That’s why later I have to email or phone them to make sure that they understood me

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