From Gringo (Foreigner) to 'Manito (Brother): The Tale of a Foreigner Who Smiled No Matter What

Tearing Down Spoken Language Barriers with the Universal Language-Body Language

In last week’s edition of the newsletter, I said “I’m not leaving [Mexico] til new friends are made.” Well, I’m here to report that the mission has been accomplished, but I’m not leaving just yet. This was just one challenge, and it’s the journey that is my destination.

It’s also quite possible this was just the principle of favorability at play, what many call “beginner’s luck.” With only 1 example so far, we can’t be so sure that it wasn’t luck. As an engineer, I’m interested in seeing a greater sample size before drawing conclusions, so I’ll be sure to report back if this was just beginners luck or if I’m actually on to something.

But for now, let me tell you the story of how I made some new friends here in Mexico.

One friend leads to another

I made one friend last week named Paloma. On Saturday we were invited to the birthday party of her friend Alitze that she knows from the university. From what I understood, Paloma’s “friends” were in town for the weekend and had rented a house to stay in to celebrate her birthday.

Being from the US, the picture I envisioned in my head was that I would arrive to see 5-10 people around my age eating some food and having some drinks. Typical stuff for a 26th birthday party in the US. I knew everyone would be speaking Spanish, which would be a challenge for me, but that much was given.

What I actually arrived to was Paloma’s friend, Alitze, Alitze’s husband Alejandro, moms, dads, aunts, uncles, cousins, and brothers. 14 people in total including me, the gringo. As you can imagine, I was quite surprised to be in this setting, as this is far from the norm in the US.

At this point though, there was no turning back. Sink or swim. The goal was not just to survive through the night, but to really connect with the people around me and enjoy myself. I’m in the heart of Mexico with home cooked food, top shelf tequila, and seemingly nice people. How many other opportunities like this will I have?

Uphill Battles—Carry Yourself with Confidence or Lay Yourself to Rest

The challenge was being a complete outsider that randomly showed up to a family event that doesn’t speak their language. And by their language, I’m not referring to Spanish, I’m referring to their lingo.

Right off the bat I was only able to understand about 50% of what everyone was saying. Having loud music playing certainly didn’t help me out. It also didn’t help that everyone there knew every word to every song, and was singing the entire time. Following a conversation was a bit like following the ball under the cup at the magic show. Not only were the odds not in my favor, it simply wasn’t going to happen.

Spoken language is understood by the minds of some. Smiles are understood by the hearts of all.

When we can’t speak and fully understand the language of someone else, it can be rather difficult to make friends. When I say “speak the language” of someone else, again, I’m not referring to the literal language, I’m talking about the lingo they use. Allow me to demonstrate:

  • School book language - “Last night was fun. I met new people. We had dinner and drinks. It was great!”

  • My lingo - “Last night was a real slapper. Made some new lads, tore up the grill and a couple bottles. Helluva time!”

Are you picking up what I’m laying down? I don’t expect you to, nor do I expect the majority of the native speakers reading this to understand what “last night was a real slapper” means without reading the proceeding sentences.

But if you were to hear me say that with a positive tone, and see me say it with a smile on my face, the message would be very, very clear—I had a good time last night. You don’t need to understand what I said to see that I am happy. The fact that I am happy is all that really matters.

From outsider to friend—the power of a confident smile

Despite the fact it was clear to all of the 13 other people that I didn’t always understand what they were saying to each other, and what they were saying to me, I found a way to connect with them.

How did I do this?

I smiled.

When they asked me a question and I didn’t understand them, I didn’t shrivel up in embarrassment. I smiled and asked for them to repeat the question.

When I said something and they didn’t understand me, I didn’t scratch my head in confusion. I smiled as I tried to say it in a different way.

I didn’t let these mishaps get me down. It’s easy to feel silly in these scenarios as we may feel like everyone thinks that we are stupid, or something of that nature. But the fact of the matter is that these same scenarios happen between native speakers all the time. Doesn’t make them stupid, it just makes them misunderstood.

If you believe in yourself, you can smile as you make mistakes, misunderstand people, and see an end result that looks something like this.

Every friendship and business deal starts with a smile

As you all know, my reason for learning Spanish wasn’t money, nor was it out of fear. I learned (and continue to learn) Spanish for love, to learn about new cultures and to connect with people in those different cultures.

A smile always plays a part in developing new friendships. It is one of the most, if not the most powerful gesture in the universal language we all speak that is known as body language.

However, many of you are not here specifically to make friends. So in the next edition I will do a deeper dive on body language, and how understanding it can help you to have more success with cultivating meaningful relations, both in business and in everyday life.

If you enjoyed please give it a like!

If you know of anyone that has struggles with making new friends in a foreign country, share this with them!

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