On Sunday I announced at the Spanish mass we needed help changing the liturgical decorations on Thursday.  I asked a Hispanic family personally if they could help and they enthusiastically said .  The next day, I sent a text message to our youth group members (who are all Hispanic) asking who could come lend a hand and several said sí, they would.  Thirty minutes before the agreed upon time for decorating, one of the lead decorators (who is European American) showed up and asked if any helpers will be coming.  I sent another text message out to those who had said they were coming to remind them it was almost time.  Several said, “sí, al ratito vamos” (yes, we’ll be there in a little bit), some didn’t respond and others said “sí, vamos” (yes, we’re going). 

I drove over to the Posada, and the people who said “sí, al ratito vamos” or didn’t respond are all sitting in the living room waiting for the Posada to start!  What’s going on here?

What’s going on is, didn’t really mean yes.  And I didn’t do a good job of communicating across cultures.

Indirect Communication

Hispanic culture, in general, tends to be on the hierarchy side rather than the equality side of the spectrum.  For brief descriptions of cultural dimensions see my eBook.  Another way to say it is that Hispanic culture is more of a high-context culture while the prevailing culture in the United States is more of a low-context culture.  In a high-context culture communication is indirect; confrontation and conflict are avoided; and maintaining harmony is a priority.   In a low-context culture communication is direct; the message is spelled out; and having a difference of opinion is not personal.

In my example above, the Hispanics I was referring to are part of an indigenous culture from rural Guatemala which is collective, hierarchical and high-context.  So, when some of the youth said we’ll be there in a little bit and others chose not to respond, it was because it would have been considered disrespectful in their culture to tell me no directly.  The host of the Posada had invited their daughter’s friends to participate and the family I had talked to after mass was in charge of bringing the nativity scene since they had hosted the Posada the night before.  Maintaining those close relationships and traditions was a higher priority than their previous plans.  And I need to mention that the youth left as soon as the Posada was wrapping up and were very helpful in the decorating.

Deciphering when actually means No

The first step in deciphering indirect communication is to figure out where you are culturally.  Where are you in the cultural spectrums and where is the person you are communicating with?  For example, if you are a priest and they are from rural Mexico, they perceive you as an authority figure and their communication with you will be very formal, respectful and indirect.  Therefore, it would be culturally impossible to tell you no directly.  Expect a .

Here are some tips for how to determine if sí from someone from a high-context Hispanic culture actually means yes, maybe or no:

  • Face to Face is best: Indirect communication relies heavily on body language and tone of voice. If you can’t be face to face, at least talk on the phone.
  • Watch their body language: In a hierarchical culture it is respectful to avoid eye contact with an elder or authority figure. This will be a clue where they fall on the spectrum.
  • Clues in word choice: The words ahorita, ya mismo, al ratito might translate literally as “in a minute” but they are often indirect ways of saying maybe or no. If at the end of the conversation they finish with estamos en contacto (we’ll be in touch) then whatever they just agreed to is definitely not written in stone.  Another way to say no indirectly may be to say something like estaría bien (that would be good) or other conditional phrases.   I find that if someone tells me sí, sí, sí, sí, it’s usually because they feel they can’t tell me no.
  • Look for more context: Sometimes in the conversation they will mention other things that seem unrelated but they could be an indirect way of telling you no. For example, “sí, I can but I have a lot laundry I need to get done today.”  Picking up on those clues and asking more questions about other things going on may help you get the full picture.  It could give them a respectful way to say they actually can’t do what you’re asking.
  • Focus on the relationship: Since maintaining harmony and avoiding conflict are high priorities for a collective culture, the more we strengthen relationships, the more confidence someone will have in being able to say no or ask questions. For example, I would take women to the doctor all the time who would say  to everything the doctor said and nod as if understanding everything.  Then when we would get in the car to drive home, they would ask me what in the world the doctor meant because they had no idea.  Their relationship with the doctor was hierarchical and he was an authority figure, but since I had built a close relationship with them they could be more direct with me.

Intercultural Communication

Let’s go back to the communication between me and the decorating volunteers.  I would have had a much clearer picture of who was actually going to arrive if I had followed my advice above.  If I had picked up the phone, instead of sending text messages, I would have been able to hear clues in the conversation and would have been more likely to ask questions.  I could have asked directly if they planned to attend the Posada or if they had other plans at that time.  I could have reinforced the relationship by taking the time to talk, ask how they and their family were doing and the Posada may have come up in the conversation.  When I make the effort to communicate in a way that does not come naturally to me, but is more comfortable for our Hispanic parishioners, we communicate much more effectively.  I would have been able to tell which sí meant yes, which meant maybe and which meant no.

How have you experienced cultural clashes around communication in ministry?  Share in the comment section below!

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