Living in an ethnically diverse California, cultural barriers prevent people from connecting every day. There is a mix of Caucasian, Mexican, and Vietnamese culture in the city that I come from. People who look at me can obviously tell that I’m neither Mexican nor Vietnamese. If I greet the parents of my Vietnamese friends with a nice American “Hello!” I might get a smile in return. But if I greet my friend’s mom with a bow and a “Chao co,” she laughs giddily and the conversation is immediately off to a better start.
Why does using different language cause such a different reaction? Well, language is culture. By using the Vietnamese language, I am breaking down the barrier between my friend’s mom and me. Often, because I do not look Vietnamese, using a Vietnamese greeting surprises the person I’m meeting and makes them feel more comfortable. Because they are more comfortable, they will usually smile or laugh, (sometimes at me) which opens the door for more conversation.
Now, my knowledge of the Vietnamese language stops at “Hello.” But, I do know some Spanish, having three years of experience studying the language in school. I went to Denny’s with a bunch of my friends one night, and just waiting to get our seats, I heard the workers yapping back and forth in rapid-fire Mexican. Using “Hola” instead of “Hello,” and “Gracias,” instead of “Thank you,” when we ordered enabled me to receive many smiles and a “What can I get for you mi amigo?” from the waiter. 🙂
The best example from my life, however, is the note I received a few days ago from the lady who cleans my house.
Before I left my house that morning, I wrote on my whiteboard that she didn’t have to clean my desk and to have a good day or something. I forget exactly what I said, but the important thing is that I connected with her in Spanish. If you couldn’t read the note, it says, ” Hi Chris! I hope you liked it. Your Spanish is very good. have a fantastic day. Smiley face. -Linda.” I don’t know what her facial expressions were the moment she walked into my room, but I can guarantee that it made her more happy reading the directions in Spanish than it would if they had been written in English.
If there’s any advice that I have for anyone, it is to make an effort to bridge a cultural gap with someone when you can. Using “Hola”s and “Chao”s just might brighten someone’s day and make them smile (or laugh.) A change in vocabulary of just one word can cause more change than you might think.