Learning the language, one body part at a time
How to act like a local without speaking a single word
(I posted this a while ago on my old blog in a quiz-like format, which in retrospect wasn’t such a good idea, given the nausea-inducing limitations of having to scroll up and down on a webpage to see what was what, and it didn’t get as much mileage. I think this version will be clearer and hopefully more entertaining ~ jT)
As foreigners in a new and unfamiliar place, we all want to blend in. Especially today where preferences lie in rugged labels such as “travelers” to the staid khaki shorts and sandals and socks-inducing image of “tourists”, the new trend is doing as the locals do. But what if you don’t speak the language? If you’re in Spain, you’re in luck.
Meeting a Spaniard at a party or other social occasion while I was teaching English in Madrid, they might compliment me on my Spanish (a mere formality of conscience, I assure you), and ask if I knew the language before coming to Spain. I would launch into my spiel about having studied it in high school, but who really cares about anything in high school, sabes?, so when I arrived here, I didn’t understand anything, cero pata cero. The rapidity with which I assayed this tale (having done it um-teen times in um-teen bars at various decibel levels), and the opportunity to toss in a little madrileño colloquialism usually impressed the person enough so that it partially obscured my complete non-understanding of our subsequent conversation.
But maneuvering deftly through Spanish society requires more than a stock story and the ability to nod your head and murmur, “vale” every half-second. One must also master Spanish sign language in order to look like they truly belong. As the noise-levels in Spanish bars and parties often exceed healthy levels, communication evolved a system of gestures to meet that need. Naturally, a distinct body language developed. Some of the following gestures may seem subtle at first, but if you start looking around, you will notice them more and more.
1) “You have to pay.”
Oops! You fell for that old gypsy-woman-generously-handing-out-flowers trick! And now she wants to be compensated for all her hard work. When someone wants to indicate you must pay for something, they will place their fist in their palm, thumb up like so. Either give her some change, or return the flower and give her this sign:
2) “I’m broke.”
As an English teacher or backpacker, this gesture is extremely useful. Place your index and middle fingers in front of your eyes as in the military sign for “look”. Now, pull the fingers down at the knuckles. Refuse to pay for the flower, or any more drinks the rest of the night.
Speaking of looking, this is how it’s expressed as an imperative. When someone gives you directions such as “Go down Calle Mayor, and look for the church” (possibly the most frustrating directions one could receive in Madrid), they will point at their eye by tapping the area directly beneath it.
4) “What the hell are you trying to say to me?”
Many Spaniards will not be used to hearing their language butchered like so many legs of jamón Serrano. In response to your order at the bar, you may receive this face, an unpleasant mixture of honest confusion and blatant disgust. Do not lose heart or feel the need to lapse into English. You can overcome!
The Spanish Finger Wag took some getting used to, and was met with my steaming indignation at first. But believe it or not, it’s not the condescending gesture it is in the United States, where you would use it to scold your dog for getting randy with Aunt Edna’s new stockings. In Spain, it is simply an emphatic way of disagreeing with or correcting somebody.
Spanish people love to congregate; bars, discos, the famous botellónes (impromptu outdoor drinkfests) are chock full of people, often resembling a sweaty, undulating mass of humanity. To express how crowded it is, pinch your fingertips together two or three times. Then, do the following:
6) “Let’s bounce”
Slap your right wrist with your left palm indicating your desire to vacate the premises – stat. (Warning: as this is a nationally understood gesture, use with discretion at parties or social occasions when in view of your host!)
7) “That’s really hard”, or “Whew!!”
Everyone does this one, from 10 year olds to seniors sitting on park benches. There was even a shot of Prince Felipe doing it at a World Cup match this summer. It’s performed by making the Hawaiian “hang loose” sign, but with all your fingers. Shake your hand back and forth in an “Ow, it’s hot!” manner. For extra inflection, exhale loudly and say “Boof!”. This is a proper response to questions such as: “Hey, how was New Year’s in Puerta del Sol?” or “What is the square root of 4,214?”
Mastering these gestures will make your time spent in Spain much easier and enjoyable, as you save your vocal cords as well as your pride if your language skills are lacking (the pathetic alternative, feigning narcolepsy and pretending to spontaneously fall asleep in certain situations, is one of the harder disorders to fake, not to mention makes meeting people challenging.) Ultimately, having these gestures at your disposal is much more graceful than pulling out your phrasebook in the middle of a crowded bar, and even better, might almost make you feel like a local.