It is the adventure of being far away and still feeling at home....


viernes, 29 de enero de 2010

Why saying "Che Boludo" with a foreign accent is not too bad - Languages and Expats identity

Heading to Argentina for a season abroad? If you are a Newcomer, someone needs to tell you the truth. Argentina is not only about dancing tango in Caminito and making eternal pilgrimages around Parrillas of Buenos Aires. Actually, one of the biggest challenges of this Latino country is to understand the colorful Spanish language. No big deal right?

The language barrier would be just another element of the expat cultural adventure, if it wasn´t because everything you learnt in your vacations in Madrid becomes useless when you try to speak Castellano, the Argentine version of the Spanish language. And if you thought this would keep you safe in Porteño land, it is because you haven´t even heard about the existence of Lunfardo yet… Lun... what? Oh yes, Buenos Aires citizens, also called Porteños, have their own slang.
No wonder why the tragedy of language immersion can reproduce awkward feelings of our early childhood, when we used to feel small, weak and hopeless in a world of adults. Been there before?

Did you ever hear the stories of ... let´s say, 30-year old expats full of hair on their chests, confessing they used to feel like a 4-year-old child when living abroad? This is also true for expats relocating to Argentina. Why is that? Language barrier challenges our sense of identity. It is not unusual that expats make visible efforts to integrate to Argentine culture, by forcing themselves to speak Castellano like a native- or at least try hard to make their first “Che boludo” expressions sound as accent free as possible! Even though we may think that in Rome we should behave as Romans do, pushing ourselves to the limits can lead us to wonder: “Am I still the person I used to be?”

First things first

Our native language fosters relationships with main significant others in our childhood: our first friends, our first loves, our first jobs.

When we live in our home country and speak our native language every day, we hardly notice its existence. Our language is a suite that everybody is wearing around us –and we give it for granted, as the air we breathe. And every time we speak to our co-nationals, their response reinforces the fact that “we are all in the same boat”.

However, when we relocate to a country where a different language is spoken (or same language, but with different accent or idioms), the environment of the host culture tells us silently “Listen to yourself…You are not one of ours”. Language barrier comes suddenly into play, leading us to review our communication strategies and wonder how to make ourselves understood.

Language, culture and identity: a 3-way road

Since we learn to speak, language shapes the image of ourselves, others and the world we live in. If there isn´t a word to name it, then it is not part of the reality we perceive.

When expats face the challenge of living abroad, the language of reference of their childhood is not there anymore. And with it, it´s lost the early childhood ability of letting themselves impregnate naturally by the music and intonation of a new language. Adult expats learn grammar and vocabulary in a more rational way than children. They need to devote large amount of efforts to learn a foreign language that will help them perceive the new cultural reality and to communicate with individuals who are part of that reality. Who wants to feel “different” anyway?

So it is not illogical to conclude that language immersion is always an opportunity to challenge expats´ sense of identity.

Some expats incorporate the foreign language extremely fast, usually to avoid the discomfort of the new situation. On the other hand, others offer great resistance to learning it, in the belief (not always conscious) that they should maintain fidelity to the language spoken with their parents and loved ones. In these cases, there is often an underlying belief that the native tongue is the only one that can express vital experiences authentically, so the foreign language is rejected for being “poor or insufficient” and for disguising their identity.

In other occasions, resistance to incorporating some expressions of the foreign language is a way of avoiding the shame of being a child again – in need to “create” the words in a universe of adults.

Having said this - There is light at the end of the tunnel.

When you overcome the cross-cultural challenge of the language immersion, you´ll begin to feel that there is enough space in yourself for both your native language – and Castellano. Your identity is no longer threatened. On the other hand, you will perceive that learning foreign languages makes you rich and diverse, and you can offer this diversity to others.
 As an expat in BA, you´ll come across plenty of interesting opportunities to assimilate Lunfardo.
Use them!

- Go beyond your comfort zone.

- Talk to locals.

- Listen to Porteño children – they have tons of things to teach you - you used to be a child too.

- Try using new expressions you learnt from that nice Argentine waiter  or that funny new word you overheard in the supermarket.

The good thing about getting familiar with Lunfardo is that it will take you closer to the real identity of Buenos Aires and its people, giving your cross- cultural experience a whole new dimension.

Join our Intercultural Coffee Meetings for Expats in BA!

Learn. Share. Live Buenos Aires

Next Meeting: "How Much do you know about Lunfardo: Porteño Slang?"
Friday February 5th  -  6.00pm.
"Tea Connection". O. Cossentini 1545. Puerto Madero
Attendance fee: 40 Ar$/ person.
Coming with a friend? 70Ar$ for both of you!

Limited seats available  Pre-booking required.
To book your seat, please send us an email to

jueves, 14 de enero de 2010

Following the route of Porteños Coffee in (im)perfect Buenos Aires

Yesterday it was a great day. As great as the place we visited.
We were 8 global nomads at the entrance of the emblematic Café Tortoni, the 150-year-old cathedral of Tango on Avenida de Mayo, to hold our 1st Expat Coffee Meeting of the Year.
Leading to Casa Rosada (the Government house), Avenida de Mayo tends to be extremely crowded at any time of the year. Luckily, Porteños usually escape from the heat of BA in January, looking for the (cool but crowded) beaches of Mar del Plata. Or Brazilian beaches, if they are lucky. This leaves BA subways empty, the traffic a (little) bit less hectic, and Cafe Tortoni....equally crowded!

1 minute after we got in, people from all walks of life began to form a long line at the entrance, as if they were hoping for a miracle to happen. It was not easy to get into the most traditional Coffee Place of BA. The Doorman was the Magician. Once the door opened up.... Magia!

You are inside of a tunnel of time. Cafe Tortoni reflects the soul and history of Porteño Life. Crowded and noisy, as Porteños. But the smell of coffee in the air, the antique decoration and the flavor of art and literature on the walls make it the perfect scenario of imperfect Buenos Aires.
Who would want Buenos Aires to be perfect? And last but not least, what makes you think that Porteños would be perfect?

Insightful moments happen when you are not expecting them. And perfection doesn´t leave space for magic.
Our Coffee Meeting was perfectly (im)perfect, thus magic. Some of us arrived late. A few couldn´t stand the noise of coffee machines and 1000 languages bein spoken in tables around us.
I had to interrupt my presentation on “How to communicate effectively with Argentine locals?”. Why? Because of the waiter, or the noise or something totally expectable? Not at all.
Simply because a funny tourist suddenly came to our table to record us with his camera. We became part of his story, whether we wanted it or not. Wherever this gentleman came from, his fellow co-nationals far way from Buenos Aires will witness – through this recording - the graceful imperfection of a bunch of smiles, coffee cups and diverse languages sitting around our table. We were 8 global souls sharing stories. Figuring out how to be a foreigner in BA. Representing 100 cultures but exploring one: Argentina´s.

And most importantly, embracing it.

Thanks Michal, Kendra, Violeta, Kaley, Phillipe, Melissa and Alejandra!

Café Tortoni was the beginning of our route of Coffee.
Our next stop is Café Manhattan.

Are you joining us?


Do you have an expat story to tell? Do you wonder how to overcome the shock of surviving Buenos Aires?
Monday January 18th 6pm - Intercultural Coffee Meeting for Expats
Where? Grand Café Manhattan - Avda Cabildo y La Pampa - Belgrano
Presentation and discussion on "Culture Shock of Newcomers in BA".
Last seats available.

40 pesos/person
If you book 3 meetings in advance: 100 pesos/ person

To book your place, please send us an email to:

lunes, 4 de enero de 2010

The emotional Argentines

As an expat in BA, it is vital to understand that Porteños (BA local citizens) have their own cultural rules on how to express their emotions, build relationships and communicate effectively with others. Are they better or worse rules than yours? Obviously not.
However, failing to become culturally aware of these differences may take you down the wrong path of interpretation.

Your plane just landed in BA city. You are coming to visit your good old Argentinian friend. You haven´t seen her for several years and you know she will be waiting for you in the Airport.
As soon as you step off “Aduana” (Customs), there she is: big smile, jumping, waiving hands and shouting your name effusively as if she was completely alone in the whole airport. This makes you feel a bit embarassed. When you finally approach her, she throws her arms around your neck and holds you tight. To your surprise, she suddenly begins to shed tears of joy. She cries and tells you how much she missed you.
You are really happy to see her too, but… isn´t she overreacting? Would you response to your friend´s emotions in a similar way?

No right or wrong answer.
Fons Trompenaars, the author of the Bestseller book “Riding the waves of culture”, states that reason and emotion influence relationships between people. Based on Parson´s research, Trompenaars describes a variety of orientations regarding the way people across cultures relate to others. One of them is the neutral vs emotional orientation.
Sounds too obvious? Let´s get into the details.

When we interact with others, is it acceptable to express our emotions openly? Or should we keep our feelings for ourselves?
Believe it or not, affectivity is usually the result of convention. Anger, joy, sadness or surprise are not equally exhibited in all cultures (neither in the same degree nor in the same way). Personal space, body language, gestures and tone of voice are also culturally determined.

Unlike Anglo-saxon and some North European countries, Argentina is an emotional oriented culture. This means that Argentines have a tendency to reveal thoughts and feelings in public, both through verbal and body language. Argentines will usually let their emotions flow easily through touching, a rather loud tone of voice, laughter and facial expressions, to name a few. Soccer fans will scare you off with their highly emotional shouting of “Goooooool” every time their favourite soccer team marks a goal. And don´t get surprised if Argentine mums kiss their children in public, or raise their tone of voice unexpectedly to shout at them in the bus when the little ones are not behaving properly.

On the other hand, neutral cultures (such as Japanese, UK or Norweigan) tend to reveal their emotions quite rarely. They usually prefer to leave affectivity outside of interpersonal relations, as they consider that intensive emotional exhibitions should be controlled.

It is important to note that this is not stereotyping. Trompenaars theory is based on extensive research and it does not indicate that all people from one culture will react equally. The main point is that cultural orientations show us degrees of likelihood. This means that, in given circumstances, individuals from one culture will tend to behave under certain cultural norms, in comparison to individuals from other cultures in similar circumstances.

Why is cultural awareness important?
So at this stage, you understand that there are emotional and neutral oriented cultures. And you can tell that Argentina is closer to the affective ones. Perfect. So next question is: Why would an expat need to explore their own emotional reactions when encountering with Argentines?

Trompenaars gives us a a good reason for this.

When we express ourselves, we usually expect confirmation of our feelings and thoughts in the response of others. In other words, if my approach is highly emotional, I will probably seek a direct, emotional response in return. However, if I prefer to keep my emotions under control, I will expect a neutral, controlled response as well.
When I interact with a person who doesn´t abide by my cultural norms, things can get difficult.

At this point, can you imagine the cross-cultural misunderstandings that can take place when neutral and emotional oriented individuals meet?

Here are a couple of everyday examples:

If you are an expat coming from a neutral culture, you may interpret ups and downs in speech of Argentines and constant interruptions as an indicator of lack of seriousness or professionalism.
Did you ever wonder what leads Argentines to exhibit this voice pattern? They often show their deep involvement and interest in the conversation by raising or changing their tone of voice. In many Latin American cultures, interrupting their counterparts before he/she finished talking is a signal of interest in what is being said. Furthermore, silence could be interpreted as a failure in communication.

Another one: as a neutral oriented individual, you may feel that your personal space is threatened if you just meet an Argentine stranger (usually female) who attempts to kiss you on the cheek in a social event. Hey, don´t get annoyed so easily. Your Argentine´s stranger is just doing what is socially expected for a first encounter: being polite.
If she is not culturally aware of your neutral orientation and if you fail to emulate her behaviour, she may interpret your detached demeanor as dislike or disdain. Not a good start, right?

A good piece of advice for neutral oriented individuals is to learn to tolerate Argentines´ emotionality without feeling intimidated. It´s not personal!

As an expat in BA, it is vital to understand that Porteños have their own cultural rules on how to build relationships and communicate effectively with others. Are they better or worse rules than yours? Obviously not.
However, failing to become culturally aware of these differences may take you down the wrong path of interpretation.

Keep an eye on this blog for more intercultural articles to make the most of your expat experience in BA!


Are you a NewComer in Buenos Aires? Would you like to understand the Argentinian way, from the perspective of an Argentinian Cultural Specialist, while meeting new people in a friendly environment?

Then join us in our Nomadas Globales - NEW Intercultural Coffee Meetings!
For expats, international students, travelers and all those interested in understanding Argentine locals idiosyncracy.

Agenda: "How to communicate effectively with Argentine locals?" (Jan 13th) Dissertation & Round Table of Natalia Sarro, Argentinian Psychologist and Intercultural Trainer. Followed by open discussion.
When? January 13th 2010 - 5.00pm
Where? Gran Café Tortoni. Avenida de Mayo 825. Capital (BA)
How long? 90 minutes.
Cost: 20 Ar$ (promotional price)

Last seats available. Pre-booking required.

New meetings will be scheduled soon. Check our website or contact us for more details:

Pictures used in this article belong to: