As well as the conventional type of language consisting of the sounds we make through our mouths, there is another kind of language which can communicate just as much, namely body language. This can consist of hand or body gestures which carry specific meanings, of which there are many in Spanish, as well as unconscious mannerisms, postures or facial expressions which often reveal more than our words and can even contradict them to reveal our true thoughts and feelings.
Whilst much of our own body language is unconscious, we also unconsciously read other people’s body language. We can form an opinion about someone’s personality or attitude without being able to put our finger on what led us to such an impression. This is very often because of the unconscious messages they have sent to us which may reveal apathy, aggressiveness or evasiveness lying behind friendly, positive words. Alternatively, we can perceive someone as likeable and trustworthy without really being able to explain why. Again, this might be because of unconscious communication, or it can be because someone has learnt to control their body language but is using it to deceive. The whole area is complicated and nowadays there are experts who analyse public figures and people in criminal cases to see whether their body language and their words are consistent.
Well, you won´t be surprised to know that body language can be further complicated when there are different cultures involved. It is quite common for British people to judge foreigners of various nationalities as arrogant and rude, simply because our own culture has a series of unconscious codes which we send to each other to allay that impression. We tend to smile more, tilt our heads to one side and make affirming noises which send a friendly message to each other, whilst those particular body codes are absent from other language cultures.
Specifically in Spain, there is far less of a tendency to smile at complete strangers, simply to reassure them. As foreigners in this country, it is easy to find this off-putting and feel that people are being cold and unhelpful. However, we may not realize that the Spanish generally perceive us to be cold for different reasons. We tend to remain physically more distant from each other, shaking hands rather than kissing and allowing for greater personal space between us. Also, our lack of specific hand and body gestures to express a wide range of ideas makes us seem more inscrutable and therefore distinctly more scary.
It’s a complex and interesting subject, but it is definitely worthwhile reserving our initial judgments of people when their language and whole cultural upbringing is different from our own.