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'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 manners.


¨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 me?

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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 partners?

  1. Be consistent: If you are giving bad news do not try to present it like good news, be coherent with what you are doing.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 ¨A little empathy can go a long way¨).

  4. 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 ¨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 art.

Here are some hints to avoid making it look as if you were communicating with someone of your own culture:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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).

  4. 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.

  5. 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 and so?¨.

I hope all this is useful. Good luck!

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