In my last post, I posted an audioclip of a man pretending to speak English. Several people I know, and even some I don’t told me how much they enjoyed it. So far, it’s going strong at 269 listens, which is a lot of people listening to someone speaking gibberish. Or one person listening many times, you never know.
In addition to the fact that it’s entertaining to listen to someone pretend to speak your language, it has come up among foreigners how pesky it is to hear people doing this behind your back (yet within earshot). Personally, I find the random “I lohve ju”s more annoying, to say nothing of the “oh my gott”s.
But one thing that a couple of people said to me was, “how did you get him to talk to you?” And I report back, in complete gringa naiveté, “I spoke to him first.” Which garners responses like, oh, that’s weird, and “me muero,” Chilean for “I would die/I would rather die.”
Plainly put, you don’t talk to strangers here. I remember when I first came to Chile, feeling like I had no idea of how to make small talk with strangers. Should I complain about the weather? Too negative. About the line at the supermarket? Too weird. In fact, on two occasions when I did this talk-to-strangers thing at a supermarket, men followed me down the street, talking to me, asking for my phone number. On one occasion, the guy even came fruit shopping with me at the local fruit stand and carried my bag of fruit back to work with me. I wish I could report back that he was the loveliest of humans, but, bag carrying aside, I had no interest. Cultural differences, and all.
I wouldn’t say I don’t talk to strangers anymore, but I understand that there is this under- (or over-) current of “this thing I am doing is strange.” I accept that, and the people who talk back are also aware of the fact that we are breaking social mores. In Paraguay, I had many conversations with strangers, and it was not weird at all. Different countries and all.
So it really struck me the other night, when, out at a party, someone used “talking to a stranger on the bus” as support for her argument, which in this case, was that poor people spend money in ways that don’t make sense. (Clarification: this is someone else’s opinion, not mine).
Her discourse went like this:
Y el otro día, andaba en la micro, y andaba una chica y era obvio de que no tenía plata
(The other day, I was on the bus, and there was this girl, and it was clear that she was not wealthy).
Pero usaba una chaqueta super linda, pues le digo, “Que linda la chaqueta.” Y me dice “Gracias.”
But she was wearing a really nice jacket, so I said to her, “What a lovely jacket” and she says “Thanks.”
Y le pregunto
And I ask her
“Cómo es que Ud. tiene una chaqueta tan linda. Tiene que tener un muy buen sueldo.”
“So how is it that you have such a nice jacket? You must earn a lot of money.”
“No”, me dice, “pero la quise, pues fui a la tienda, y me la compré en cuotas”.
“No,” she says, “but I wanted the jacket, so I went to the store, and bought it in installments.”
And the woman I was talking to went on and on. It was obvious that she was trotting out this example of bus-time conversation to make her point, which was that the woman should have saved her money and spent it on something more worthy.
And I pointed out that she had told me that she could tell that the woman was not wealthy, and that in fact, she looked poor. And so I posited that perhaps she bought the jacket to feel a sense of luxury, a moment of “I want this, and I deserve it” and perhaps even to transcend snide comments and/or looks from people on the bus, judging her for being poor.
The woman I was talking to interrupted me to explain that jacket or no jacket, the woman still looked poor, and wasn’t fooling anyone.
At this point, I realized I was dealing with someone with politics so substantially different from mine, that there was no way I was going to get her to see anything but her point of view, nor was she going to convince me. Once again, someone conservative and right-leaning had pegged me for a soulmate, when in fact, I might as well be their B-side.
I excused myself to go get some water, go to the bathroom, look for more like-minded people, and got to thinking.
This “And I said to him” example happens with some frequency. Another person recently told the story of some “fleites” (lower-class people, in this case, a group of pegleg jean-wearing, baseball caps to the side dudes) coming to her store and saying threatening things because she wouldn’t pay them to wash the store window, how they threatened to come back and “cut” her. In her story she stood up to them and made them go away, repeating back their heavily sh-influenced Spanish (side-note, in Chilean Spanish, the ch and sh sounds are phonemic variants (predictable and non-significant different pronunciations) of each other, were most people use one of the other, and the more tch-ey it is, the posher you sound, and the more sh-sh-sh you sound, the more people are going to call you a fleite). She threatened them back, she says, egging them on, sh-sh-shing right back at them.
On other occasions, I have talked about the general nonconfrontational nature I have noticed living here in Santiago. This appears in the Paraguay piece, but also in lots of other posts. So here we have a strict don’t-talk-to-strangers policy coupled with a no confrontation policy.
So I thought about the woman talking to a stranger to intimate that her shopping practices did not square with how poor she looked, and the other example of insultingly speaking “lower-class Spanish” back to someone you see as threatening and the story of being threatened with getting cut/stabbed for not allowing someone to wash your store window in downtown Santiago.
In my mind, I am sure of one thing: These things never happened.
It reminds me of the allegorical tales some parents tell their children, starting with the boy who cried wolf and (perhaps) ending with the girl who didn’t study for her math test and failed and dropped out of everything and now sifts through other people’s garbage to feed her four cats.
On the one hand, I don’t particularly like being lied to, and assume you feel the same way. If I tell you a conversation happened, it’s because to the best of my memory, it really happened. If I want to opine about something, I will opine. I will also tell you that I heard it, I read it or someone told me, and I will try to source it, telling you where it came from. And yet, these most-likely-didn’t-happen stories prevail.
I wouldn’t say that this tale-telling is unique to Chile, but I do think it’s an interesting social phenomenon, that supports people’s arguments in an indirect way, thereby preventing them from having to say “I” followed by the words “think” or “believe.” To some extent, it protects speakers from having their listeners obviously disagree with their point, because it’s a much headier task to tell someone, “I don’t think what you are saying actually happened,” than it is to just look at them and say, “that’s your opinion.”
But I can’t help but wonder, is it an agreed-upon norm, where we all are supposed to know that people are telling tall tales to get their point across, but that everyone knows didn’t really happen? Or do the people telling the stories really think those listening to them believe what they’re saying?
Given the fact that even people who know me (and I am quite outgoing) were surprised that the man I interviewed in the previous piece was not someone I knew, I can’t help but think that there’s a subtext that says, “do not interrupt, lie in progress.” The pattern seems to be: you lie, and we know it’s a lie, and now we know what you’re thinking, but we won’t call you out on the lie.
And so ends today’s discourse analysis wonder brain dump. I can’t believe it’s taken me nine years to notice this.
I am totally fascinated by this post! I agree wholeheartedly with the non-confrontational, don’t-talk-to-strangers reality in daily street life. Although I do come across strangers making comments out loud to no one and everyone, like “oh the metro is so crowded today”, hoping that someone will respond so they can begin a conversation in a somewhat organic way. Usually I ignore them, but sometimes I don’t, and when I answer, they generally talk my ear off as though they have just been dying for someone to respond..
I’ve been here a year in Chile, and although ‘truth’ is something that I feel is very culturally distinct here vs. North America, it had never occurred to me that whole stories could be created to serve a purpose in that way. For me, it has always been more in terms of some bureaucrat confirming the documents required for a certain procedure, which turns out to be a total lie, or making plans with someone, and finding out that you should probably double and triple confirm because exact hours and days to meet up change frequently and excessively!
Now I have to test these waters, and try to pinpoint one of these possible stories happening in real time 🙂
Thanks for your always-interesting analysis!
Interesting post. I will be moving to Santiago de Chile in the summer of 2014,. I currently live in Hong Kong, and have lived in China for 24 years. The more I read about the Chilean people, the more I feel that they share many of the traits of Chinese people (especially Mainland Chinese). I hope that the machismo or conservatism that I hear about isn’t too much of a problem in daily life, and that my family and I will spend a wonderful time in this beautiful country.
I don’t know where your home country is, but Chile has quite a lot in common with the northern hemisphere and Western Europe/US/Canada. Most of what I talk about is more stuff I’ve noticed after a long period of time. And anyway, they’re just my observations. Your mileage may vary! Everyone’s experience of Chile is really different, depending on where they live/spend time/spend time with. And serial expats don’t seem to run into too many problems with culture here, as they’re already experts at being cultural chameleons!
I am from Belgium, and moved to China in 1989. You are correct about the chameleon-like characteristics of long-time expats. I am married to a Chinese lady and our kids (6 and 9) have to deal with two very different attitudes to things (very liberal against pretty conservative) on a daily basis, but we manage fine. Interestingly enough, my majors in university were English and Spanish, which I chose thinking I would move to South America after my studies. This will indeed happen, but with a quarter-century delay!
While I speak Spanish and will likely get involved in the local running, biking and triathlon scene, my children will have more of an expat life because of the school that they’ll go to. I am not too worried, actually, but just wondering with anticipation whether I’ll get used to living in a new environment after 25 years of East Asia.
I am not sure if you know, but is there enough choice for whole, organic and vegetarian foods in Santiago?
Yep, quite a change! There are lots of those things you asked about available, with shops, twice a week (at least) organic markets, restaurants (more veggie than organic, though some overlap), and even a couple of CSA projects with food deliveries. Organic dairy, too, but not at the supermarket. There is some organic produce at the fancier grocery store, called Jumbo.
My how things have changed since I got here!