|'Political Correctness': the wrong approach in Latin America|
Are you wondering why your perfectly correct messages are
being responded to in rage, surprise, shock, dismay, anger
or a combination of them all? Are you one of those people
that try to be ¨politically correct¨ in your communication?
If your answers are yes to both questions we have identified
your problem. Read this article to understand how political
correctness can be culturally dependent, how it is perceived
in Latin America and how to phase it out into simple good
¨Good evening! I am Julie and I'll be your table attendant
tonight, please call me anytime if you need anything. I
really hope I can make this evening a perfect one for you¨.
It can go on and on with a frozen smile that does not go
with the look in her eyes.
It is obvious that sometime, not too long ago, people in the
United States started appreciating, if not demanding, that
kind of treatment. So the way people said things became much
more important than what they truly felt. Making sure
everybody was treated equally became more important than
believing everybody is equal. You have to look
nondiscriminatory rather than be really open-minded.
This is fine as long as everybody agrees and it seems to
work for many within the boundaries of the US. Even though
¨Political Correctness¨ has expanded a little it definitely
gives the wrong impression in Latin America. We sense that
if so much effort is put into making sure what you say
sounds right it is because you might otherwise say something
that is not right.
Generally in Latin America honesty and authenticity are
really appreciated. Many decisions are based on the fact
that we ¨feel¨ we can trust someone to do something. The
impression a person gives goes a long way and triggers our
instincts. If someone is saying something but feels in a
different way we immediately sense it because that mechanism
is not so openly used around here. When that happens we stop
trusting and have many second thoughts on interacting with
that person. It is not to say we are all honest and clean
and worthy of trust in the region. What happens here is that
we are able to speak quite freely about how we feel and
therefore concealment is not the rule. The concept is: why
lie if I can say the truth? Why lie to make others accept
If you are a racist or xenophobic you may say so, if you are
a macho type you are the rule, if you think all the poor
should be sent to the moon you can say it. What you would
probably not do is say it in front of someone who could be
hurt or someone who you know feels very strongly about the
subject unless you want to start a spirited discussion.
Whatever you are and however you feel is what matters most.
You act out and everybody knows what to expect. If they like
you they stay around you and if they don't they keep their
distance. Phony cover-ups sound funny and ridiculous,
sometimes cowardly or hypocritical.
So if I am not xenophobic nobody really minds if I make a
politically incorrect comment, don't we all say a silly
thing once in a while? People are not nailed down because of
the way they say things but because of how they truly think
about things. Two examples illustrate my case.
- An Argentine Professional living in North Carolina (USA) had
a department outing with families that could not attend. She
was sorry not to go and wanted to feel present somehow. She
baked a cake and sent it with a card and phrase she had
heard her mother-in-law say a million times: ¨I baked it
with my white hands¨. She had never stopped to think of the
phrase and always though the word white meant clean. In
Argentina the first form of independent government declared
all slave children free. The number of black people brought
from Africa was low and after a few local wars where many
people died the number fell to almost zero. Therefore the
phrase ¨white hands¨ has no racist background in the mind of
most Argentineans. Nobody thanked her for the cake and I
have a feeling the phrase was mistaken for a racist comment.
- An American lecturer visiting Duke University talking
about Apartheid in South Africa referred to the black people
in South Africa as African Americans. He could not say
black! Does that mean he was not a racist? It certainly does
not make him a racist either. But it does tell me that he is
so inhibited to say ¨black¨ that he can not say the word
were it goes!
I write all this with a little sense of nervousness: will
anybody be hurt? Will people believe me when I say racism is
just not in my culture? I cannot assure that to myself, all
I have left is the peace of mind I have because I know how I
feel (not to mention the Lord as my witness). That is how we
are over here.
So what can you do to stop being so careful on things that
are considered important or unimportant in your own culture
and begin focusing on what matters with your Latin American
- Be consistent: If you are giving bad news do not try to
present it like good news, be coherent with what you are
- Be sensitive: If you have been made aware of a need or
some kind of discomfort your business partner is going
through, do not ignore it. Address it, even to say you are
not able to help. Show yourself sorry if you are and stay
neutral if you are not.
- Be straightforward: If you are wondering how your partner
can be so lazy, lousy, slow, etc. then ask the question
because it will be sensed anyway. You can say: ¨It is very
hard for me to understand how this could take so long, come
out so badly, etc. maybe you can explain it to me?¨ You
might be surprised with a very unsuspected answer (see
February 2002 issue at www.MarinaCrosby.com/nwletsub.htm ¨A
little empathy can go a long way¨).
- Be honest: Market laws are ruling this globalized world
but are not always fear to local people in peripheral
countries (see March 2002 issue at www.MarinaCrosby.com
¨Globalization, a one way street?¨). If you are aware of the
fact that the working conditions you are imposing are not
what you would be happy with yourself, consider that they
are aware of it too. Do not try to make friends with people
you are abusing;
On the other hand you might be getting the wrong impression
of your Latin American business partners if you are judging
them with the political correctness manual. In fact I would
be very surprised to find a political correct Latin American
unless he or she has been specifically instructed on the
Here are some hints to avoid making it look as if you were
communicating with someone of your own culture:
- Focus strictly in what the person is communicating, the
content. If the person has not been exposed to the
¨political correctness¨ concept it is most likely that she
or he ignores it. It took me months during my first stay in
the USA to understand the reactions to my words and acts. I
was permanently shocking people when that is usually the
last thing I like doing.
- If something you hear is very disturbing to you explain it
and request what you need. Typically people are not trying
to disturb a business partner on purpose.
- Casually mention each broken rule, as it is broken so you
smoothly teach your codes to the other person. For example:
¨We do not usually discuss our marriage in the work
environment¨ when someone is letting you into details you do
not want to hear. ¨I prefer to keep our discussions in a
conversation tone¨ when someone is getting very emotional
about a work issue (this can happen very often).
- Remember the Arabic and Spanish backgrounds add to the
dramatic Native American style. Phrases like ¨I want to kill
myself¨ over a stained printout or a five minutes delay
should not be taken seriously. Most likely the person is
just translating very used Spanish phrases into English.
- When the consequences are relevant to you get a more
rational grasp of the facts when the situation is over. The
Latin culture sometimes over blows reactions. When in doubt
ask: ¨Do you really mean you would rather lose the business
than sit at the table with that person again?¨ ¨Are you
serious when you say you are so angry you want to fire so
I hope all this is useful. Good luck!
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