Cultural Misunderstandings.. Watch what you say!

A man is shocked by what he has heard. Photo: David Goehring

In English, “estas gordita (for women)” and “estas gordito (for men)”, is roughly translated as, “You’re a bit fat,” and is a very common expression used by Barranquilleros. Generally, people say it as a compliment, as in “You look great”, but to a foreigner, it can be incredibly rude. Most Europeans or North Americans would NEVER even consider calling someone else fat. “Hola gordito,” is also often used as a flirtatious greeting and has nothing to do with body-size.

What’s crucial is the intonation used; if you haven’t heard these sayings before, as a Barranquillan friend to teach you the right way to use them. And keep in mind too that it’s usually not the language itself that causes problems but instead, the way we use words and expressions.

The word “marica” (translated as fag in English) also has varying meanings based on its context (the manner in which you say it). Here on the coast, the newer generations use it as part of their everyday vocabulary to say “dude”, and it has no reference whatsoever to sexual orientation. It’s not uncommon to hear friends using it amongst each other at work. Nevertheless, some people, especially foreigners, find it offensive because its English form is quite rude.

“Mamar gallo,” “suck a rooster,” is another term many people find offensive, even here in Colombia. It really depends on who you talk with. Barranquilleros use it to mean they’re kidding – it could be translated as “pulling your leg”.

In Barranquilla, “¿Cuanto ganas?” asks the question of how much someone earns. When you’re with close friends, the question is very common and appropriate. In different places around the world, however, it can be a very private matter. You can avoid giving information about the money you earn by being polite and using expressions such as: “No mucho” (Not much), or “Lo suficiente para sobrevivir” (Enough to survive), or just act like someone who doesn’t speak Spanish and say: No entiendo la pregunta. (I don’t understand your question).

When inviting someone to a restaurant, for dinner and drinks, never use the expression “Te invito” because this really means “It’s my treat” and people assume you’re going to pay the bill at the end. It’s better to say “Llega al lugar si quieres” (Go to the place if you can), and use the expression “A la Americana” and the invitee will assume that everybody will pay their share. It is similar to the American term “Going Dutch” where people pay their own way.

Body language is also important. Sometimes here in Colombia, a kiss on someone’s cheek comes with a good morning. Just don’t go kissing people every time you greet, because it’s really only something you do with a close friend. Also, it’s still taboo here for two men or two women to kiss in public, so better to keep that in private and instead, go with a fist bump or a hand-shake.

In Colombia there’s an old refrain: “Las palabras no son mal dichas, a veces son mal interpretadas” which means “words can be misinterpreted”. Misunderstandings are going to occur every time you visit a foreign place, so just keep an open mind and remember the saying: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” or in this case: “When in Rome, speak as the Romans speak.”

What do you think? What are some other expressions people should know about?

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Carlos Guerra is a person who loves writing. His experience teaching Spanish to foreigners and his job as a Language and Culture Facilitator for the Peace Corps was his motivation to start writing about Barranquilla’s culture. He considers himself an ambassador of the Caribbean culture and Colombia. He loves teaching English and Spanish and enjoys learning from different cultures.