Cross-cultural Communications: A Latino Perspective

Dr. Luis A. Rosado
Director of the Bilingual Education Center
University of Texas at Arlington


Fifty years ago, the late Thurgood Marshall argued and won the landmark case that prohibited race based segregation, Brown V. Topeka. In this decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled that racially segregated schools were unequal and therefore illegal (Martin, 1998). This decision mandated school districts in the nation to integrate public schools and promote equal educational opportunities for African American students. In 1954, desegregation of schools was seen as a panacea for achieving racial and educational equality in the United States. However, the Brown mandate has not yielded the expected results for African American and Latino students (Jarvis, 1992; Noguera & Cohen, 2004; Wells, 1989).

African Americans and Latinos, as well as other groups of color, are still at the bottom of the economic and educational pyramid. It has failed, in part, by the lack of positive and authentic communication among ethnic and racial minorities, and between members of the mainstream groups and minority groups of the nation. Progress has been made in the last fifty years, but not enough. It is not sufficient to share the same physical environment and educational facilities; real communication and trust must be developed if we are to solve inequity in the United States.

One of the main obstacles in promoting effective cultural contacts is the lack of trust that prevails among cultural and linguistic groups (Moore, 1999; Ogbu, 1987; Rosado & Ligons, 1998;). Ironically, the only trust that has remained constant in our history as a nation is the trust statement printed on the American penny, "In God we trust." This trust statement has remained part of our tradition, because most human beings believe in a supreme deity. Trust does not have to be a divine feature only, as it can become human. Trust can be promoted through knowledge sharing and meaningful cross-cultural contacts (Rosado & Ligons, 1998; Taylor, 1990a).

To promote knowledge sharing, this article presents an analysis of behaviors that have been linked to specific cultural groups in the United States as a foundation for discussion and analysis. Some of the topics selected for discussion are: the concept of respect, productivity in the work place, time issues, and discourse pragmatics. The ultimate goal of this article is to promote trust by initiating discussions on issues of cross-cultural communication.

The Discussion

In a classical study in cross-cultural communication, Edward T. Hall analyzed the communication styles of cultural groups throughout the world and grouped them in two categories: high context and low context cultures (Hall, 1976). The communication style of the high context group is highly contextualized. The meaning is generally understood in terms of the situation or the setting in which the communication is taking place. For the second group, low context, the communicative context is not as important. Instead, the communication relies almost exclusively on the verbal or written message by itself. Bennett (1999) summarizes these differences as follows:

High Context Cultures

Low Context Cultures

  • Strong cohesive group identity
  • Weaker group identity
  • Strong human collective support network
  • More individualistic approach
  • Individuals gain identity through group association
  • Gain identity based on individual efforts and accomplishments
  • Closed society with clear distinctions between insiders and outsiders
  • Open society with weaker distinctions between insiders and outsiders
  • Behavior is regulated by rigid code
  • Greater personal freedom
  • Tendency to be bureaucratic
  • More individual choice

According to Bennett, Latinos, Native Americans, African Americans and rural Appalachians fall under the high context group, while most White European American groups fall under the low context group (1999). These distinctions might account for the discrepancy between the communication patterns of European Americans and Latinos; however, it does not explain the reason for the communication problems Latinos experience with African American groups. Hall's attempt to understand cultural differences based on the high and low Context paradigm came a little bit short, since it encapsulated cultural groups in one of the two categories. We know that his approach was too simplistic. However, his ideas opened discussion and brought to the surface issues that can affect cross-cultural communication. The analysis that follows is intended to go beyond the simplistic categorization of individual groups. It is designed to identify sources of potential conflict and to guide readers to reflect on their own behavior and the behavior of individuals from different cultural groups.

Respect and Productivity in the Work Place

Most Latino immigrants and migrants who have not been acculturated to American society experience cultural shock in school and at work (Espinosa, 1995; Martínez & Edwards, 1973; Rosado & Ligons, 1997). This confusion is caused by the lack of experience with the American culture and language. There are at least two components that have created confusion among Latinos in the work place: the way people show respect to others, and differences on the concept of time and productivity.


The Latino concept of respect has played an important role in numerous communication problems between parents and school officials (Rosado, 1994). For traditional Latinos, "Respect is the foundation for any professional or social relationship" (Rosado, 1994, p. 249). Teachers and administrators need to become aware of cultural differences among faculty members and the community at large. For example, in Puerto Rico, when people introduce themselves, they use their last name. It is very rare to see a Puerto Rican from the Island giving his first name upon initial introduction. In contrast to this behavior, some groups in the United States use the first name to show informality and friendship. This behavior can create confusion to Puerto Ricans and other Latinos, who follow a similar tradition. They address people by, and prefer to be addressed by, their title and last name. This formality is present and supported by the Spanish language through the alternate use of the pronouns "usted" for formal interactions and "tú" to show informality and friendship. Friends address each other as "tú," and strangers, older people or people in positions of authority are always addressed as "usted."

Spanish as well as Italian have additional markings to show respect for older people and people in a position of authority. These languages add the titles of "Don" and "Doña" to the surname of males and females respectively. In the best literary representation of Spanish literature, "Don Quixote de la Mancha" (The Man from La Mancha), the title of "Don" was used as a sarcastic title of nobility for the old and demented character. In the movie "The Godfather," the title was also used to show respect for the character played by Marlon Brando, "Don Corleone." This title is still present in most traditional Latino cultures as a symbol of the respect that older and influential people receive in the Spanish tradition.

Latinos who have not been acculturated to the mainstream culture show an elevated sense of respect and mistrust for figures of authority in the work place (Botbol, 2001). The unstated division line between the management and the workers might discourage Latinos from developing informal or social relations with figures of authority in the work place. European American groups have a more liberal view in this regard, and social interaction with colleagues is acceptable and, in some instances, highly recommended. This sense of respect shown by Latinos can often be construed as being over compliant or condescending to authority figures with the purpose of gaining special favors; thus creating room for additional stereotyping. In the Latino tradition, respect is given to a person based on age and the position held. While in other groups, respect might not come necessarily with age or the position; instead, respect is something people earn.

Time and Productivity

"Time is Money" - "Idle hands are the devil's workshop"

Most European American groups have a very strict view of the concepts of time and productivity. The popular sayings "Time is money" and "Idle hands are the devil's workshop" summarize the view of these groups in regard to the importance of being on time and the level of productivity expected in the work place (Stewart, 1985). Both of these ideas represent the Puritan work ethic that has guided the way we conduct business in the United States. Conversely, there are a large number of Latino and African American groups that do not share these views. Latinos and African American groups have the tendency to relax time constraints, especially in social activities. These groups will produce the same kind of work, but following different work ethics and patterns of behaviors (Weaver, 2000).

In the American Southwest, these two work ethics clashed during the first part of the nineteenth-century. During the initial contacts between European Americans and Mexicans, the former resented the Mexican practices of taking siestas (afternoon naps), and participating in fandangos (sensuous dances). European Americans found these practices disturbing, and a symptom of "defective morality" (De León, 1983, p. 9). Based on these differences, Mexicans were labeled as lazy and hedonistic (De León, 1983; Moore & Pachón, 1976). These initial perceptions led to additional stereotyping about Mexicans, and eventually these were extended to other Latino groups.

Unfortunately, these and other stereotypical views have prevailed throughout history and have promoted miscommunications with Latinos in the United States. It is not the intent of this researcher to contribute to the misinformation and stereotyping about ethnic and racial groups; instead, the examples presented in this article are designed exclusively to make readers aware of potential sources of conflict when communicating with different cultural groups.

Discourse Pragmatics

The pragmatics of communication refers to stated and unstated rules of communication followed by a particular group. These rules are culturally bound, and most are acquired in a subconscious manner as part of the socialization process. Six of these components will be discussed in this section: 1) beckoning and finger pointing; 2) turn-taking; 3) eye contact; 4) polychronic versus monochronic behaviors; 5) proxemics; and 6) narrative styles (Bull, 1983; Bennett, 1999; Gollnick & Chinn, 1998).

Beckoning and Finger Pointing

Latinos in general get very concerned when they come to a new environment and feel that their colleagues or supervisors do not respect them. The use of beckoning to call children in public school is generally used in the Unites States. However, beckoning and finger pointing can have cultural implications when used with adults. For some Latino groups, beckoning implies certain levels of subordination, and it is used mostly to call children. Beckoning might be offensive for Latinos, but finger pointing might be a natural way to call people. While beckoning is normal for mainstream groups, finger pointing can be offensive.

Puerto Ricans and Salvadorians have a more discrete form of pointing. They put their lips together and produce a continuous outward movement toward the intended direction. It works perfectly within the groups, but it can create communication problems when used in cross-cultural interactions. This author used this communication form with a female Puerto Rican student, and she responded by wiggling or twitching her nose, which means that she did not understand what I was pointing to. The communication problem got worse when other Latino students tried to untangle the communication. They understood that the pointing was intended to show affection--sending a kiss. And the response that followed--twitching or shrugging the nose--as an indication that something smelled bad. The students were definitely confused with the interactions. However, they did what successful researchers in cross-cultural communication do: they asked for clarification. It took a while to explain the communications, but students developed a better understanding of the multiple components of cross-cultural communication.


Turn-taking in conversations is guided by in-group transition signals. The rising and falling intonation patterns that signal the end of the speaker's contribution might not be recognized by speakers from other cultural groups (Bull, 1983; Taylor, 1990b). The traditional pauses that signal the end of the speaker's contribution in formal conversations appear to be longer for Latinos and European American groups than the pause used by African American groups. However, these differences tend to disappear in social interactions or when dealing with close friends or family members. These differences create confusion among traditional Latinos and can affect their participation in a large group discussion. Lack of experience with these communication styles can lead to unwanted interruptions in communication. Since the ability to communicate verbally is associated with intelligence and capability, these unsuccessful interactions can guide people to pass negative judgement on people's social skills and professional capabilities.

"Los niños hablan cuando las gallinas mean"(Children talk when the chickens/hens urinate.")

Turn-taking in conversation is an important component of the socialization process of Latino children. This process includes very strict rules for interacting with adults. Interrupting conversations with adults is not generally tolerated; and when it is allowed, the child must wait at the end of a lengthy discussion to gain access to the floor (Fantini, 1978). The Puerto Rican saying given above, "Los niños hablan cuando las gallinas mean," represents the view of traditional Latino groups in regard to the participation of children in the conversation of adults. Since chickens do not have bladders, they do not urinate, thus, children cannot talk. Puerto Rican children learn very early about the biological characteristics of chickens and the implications of the analogy. A similar pattern is also present among working class African American groups (Heath, 1983). The popular saying "children are to be seen, not heard" captures the intrinsic value of this cultural behavior for both African American and Latino groups.

Lack of exposure to adult conversation affects children's ability to interact effectively with the teacher and other adults in the school setting. The traditional rearing patterns of Latino and African Americans can have a definite impact in the adjustment of children in environments where students are required to demonstrate knowledge orally. Teachers who are not aware of the interaction maxim of Latino and African American groups might conclude that the child is too shy or is language delayed (García, 1994).

The educational background and the social class of the parents have a definite impact on these interaction styles. Middle class parents generally adopt a more flexible stand in regard to the participation of children in adult conversations. Stewig & Jett-Simpson see this flexibility as a characteristic of mainstream groups in America: "In mainstream American culture, parents treat their children's conversations and first attempts at language as meaningful, relating to the children as full-fledge participants in conversations" (1995, p. 4). Children from these groups are expected and often encouraged to join conversations with adults. Thus, children have more opportunities to understand the expectations for initiating, sustaining and closing conversation with adults. These experiences lead to a smoother transition from the home to school environment where students are required to comply with rules to communicate with teachers and peers. Learning the norms of turn-taking and the rules to demonstrate knowledge in the classroom and in the work place are paramount for the successful interaction of poor Latino and African American children in the American culture.

Eye Contact

There is a great deal of confusion in regard to the issue of eye contact across cultural groups. Only one element seems to be clear at this point. People use eye contact for different purposes, and individuals need to study these in order to become effective communicators. Traditional or first generation Latinos prefer to have indirect eye contact to show respect, and direct eye contact to show defiance (Rosado & Ligons, 1998). However, this characteristic might not be present in acculturated or second generation Latinos. Some African American groups use and require direct eye contact when speaking or when children are being reprimanded, and indirect eye contact when listening to show respect and attention (Terrell & Terrell, 1993; Taylor, 1990b), while most European American groups request direct eye contact for most verbal interactions. Latino children have to develop a three-way communication style to deal with European American, African American school personnel, and to respond to the cultural expectations of their native group. These differences can create confusion and frustration among Latinos and can affect their adjustment to school.

Polychronic vs. Monochronic

Polychronic refers to the ability and the willingness to handle multiple tasks at the same time, e.g., watching television, reading a book and talking to people at the same time (Bennett, 1999; Hall, 1959, 1966). Monochronic is the preference for handling one task at a time. Monochronic people are time and schedule oriented, and they may show low tolerance for individuals who do not abide by their interaction style. At the same time, their preference to handle one thing at a time can send the wrong message to polychronic people who will perceive their attitude as rude and insensitive. They might feel insulted when the monochronic person ignores or gives them an ugly look for violations of interaction maxims.

Groups from high context cultures tend to be people oriented and polychronic, while groups from low context groups tend to be more monochronic and task oriented (Bennett, 1999). In most Latino cultures, when two adults are conversing and a third one approaches the group with the intent to ask a question or to join the conversation, the speakers will normally interrupt the conversation to attend the needs of the newcomer (Morales-Jones, 1998). This behavior shows politeness, and most Latinos will abide by this unstated norm. However, individuals from low context cultures might not welcome the intrusion of the newcomer and will not allow the person into the conversation until they reach a closure point in the conversation. These differences in interaction style can create animosity and negative feelings between the two groups.

Geography and the historical development of the groups seem to play a role in these preferences. African Americans and European American Southern groups appear to be more polychronic than their counterparts from the Northeast. A large number of Latinos, Native Americans and Southern Europeans on the other hand appear to be more polychronic (Bennett, 1999). The best way to investigate differences is by seeking contacts with the groups in question and by discussing these differences.


Proxemics addresses the issue of interpersonal distance in communication and a key component of non-verbal communication (Bennett, 1999; Hall, 1966). It is not the intent of this paper to provide specific mathematical dimensions for interpersonal communication. However, we need to be aware that each culture has specific interpersonal distance to handle business, to deal with friends and to demonstrate affection. People from high context cultures require less interpersonal space in all kinds of interactions, and do more touching than people from low context cultures (Bennett, 1999; Hall, 1959). Northeastern European American groups tend to maintain closer proximity and use more touching than their counterparts from Northwestern European traditions. Thus, it is very difficult to anticipate or predict how individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds respond to proximity.

The interpersonal distance between members of the same ethnic group is different from the distance maintained in cross-cultural encounters. Several years of interaction of this researcher with African American college students in a historically black university in Southeast Texas suggests that African American students follow different interactive maxims for intra- and inter-group communication. The students observed, touched, and hugged each other frequently during the interactions and maintained close interpersonal distance. However, when dealing with non-African Americans, the touching and hugging almost disappeared and the interpersonal distance increased. We need to be aware of the interpersonal distance maintained within our own culture and observe the interaction of people in cross-cultural situations to develop a better understanding of the process.

Gender plays a vital role in establishing the appropriate interpersonal distance between speakers (Bennett, 1999; Hall, 1966). Women from the same cultural group tend to maintain closer interpersonal distance than the distance maintained with members of the opposite sex. People have to be attentive to non-verbal communications, because these will let them know when the interpersonal space is being violated.

Narrative Styles

Language logic plays a definite role in the way people process and communicate information. This logic contributes to the propensity of speakers to use subject-centered/linear, or curvilinear/associational narrative styles. In the subject-centered or linear approach, the ideas presented have a clear connection with the topic or follow a linear progression toward the topic. In the curvilinear/associational approach, the progression toward the topic might not be guided by the topic itself, but by the ideas the topic generates in the mind of the learner (Terrell & Terrell, 1993). That is, the topic might call for the steps in baking a cake and the child might initiate the response by describing his/her last birthday celebration in an attempt to connect prior knowledge with new information.

The ability to relate new information with previous knowledge is one of the most important metacognitive abilities in problem solving and one of the guiding principles of Cognitive Constructivism (Eggen & Kauchak, 1997). Cognitive Constructivism is based on Piaget's work and it focuses on the way individuals construct their own knowledge. It promotes the use of learning activities that are generated by the child and based on his/her own experience (Eggen & Kauchak, 1997). People who follow the associational narrative style provide their own framework by using divergent thinking process to address the topic. Unfortunately, the use of divergent thinking process or associational approaches to demonstrate knowledge is not widely understood by traditional educators. In traditional teaching styles, any deviation from the linear, topic-centered approach can be interpreted as symptom of disorder or disability (Terrell & Terrell, 1993).

The language logic in Standard English progresses in a linear fashion without the possibility for digressing from the main topic (Escamilla, 1993; Payne, 1995). Speakers of English are expected to progress from point A to point B with minimal deviation from the topic. Russian, Spanish and Romance languages in general have a linear structure, but the story grammar allows for a great deal of digression in formal and informal interactions (Escamilla, 1993). Native American and Semitic languages allow for even more flexibility and digression from the linear approach. When second language learners or speakers of a dialect of Standard English impose the logic of their native language or dialectical variation on the logic of Standard English, communication problems can occur. For example, second language learners often produce written samples using Standard English structures, but these might still sound awkward and non-standard when judged based on the logic of Standard English. The language logic is one of those hidden components that most educators do not take into account. What appears to be logical for one language can be illogical for another. For example, the use of double negatives is illogical and non-standard in English while in Spanish double negatives are required (Coe, 1992). Educators who are able to conceptualize how language logic affects communication, can provide students with the additional guidance needed to be successful in mastering a second language and culture.

In the traditional classroom, the goal is to promote critical thinking following a convergent approach -- that is, to follow the teachers' logic. European American groups prefer the topic-centered approach (Anderson & Battle, 1993). When classroom teachers do not get the convergent process from the students, it sends the wrong message to teachers (Hilliard, 1976). They assume that the student is not able to think "logically" or in a coherent fashion. African American students have the tendency to follow an associational or curvilinear approach for conversation and discussions (Anderson & Battle, 1993; Terrell & Terrell, 1993). Some Latino children follow the same principles. That is, students will approach the topic based on the images and ideas generated from the guidelines presented by the teacher. Children that follow an associational approach address the topic from a holistic point of view, looking at the total picture instead of the details addressed by the teacher. The child might be following divergent thinking processes as opposed to expected convergent analysis typical of most classrooms. This kind of intellectual processing style differs from the linear approach used in school, and it might create erroneous perceptions about the mental health and capabilities of students (Kuykendall, 1992; Swick, Brown, & Boutte, 1994). Many of the African American and Latino students who seem "disabled" simply learn differently and should be taught differently (Kuykendall, 1992, p. 7). Educators need to become aware that culture plays a vital role in the way children process and present information. The logic and the rhetorical patterns required in Standard English might not be present or required in other dialects of English or other languages. These differences have to be taken into account when interpreting assessment results to make instructional or programmatic decisions.


One of the key challenges in describing cultural behaviors is that readers tend to perceive articles on the topic as a final product and use the content as recipes. Readers also have the tendency to perceive ethnic and racial groups as being homogeneous which might lead to over simplification and stereotyping.

The samples presented in this article are only a few of the components that can affect communication. To study the hidden components of language and to develop the trust and the knowledge sharing needed to understand others, we need to observe behaviors, ask clarification questions, and reflect on the information. By developing these skills, we will be able to engage in positive and authentic communication that can restore the trust needed to work together to solve social and educational inequities in the nation.


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