Every country has cultural differences with every other country. Food, driving on the other side of the road. Stuff like that. But the subtle difference, things you wouldn’t normally be keyed into when you’re vacation on the beach in another country, or bussing on a day trip off a cruise ship, are harder to spot. But I see them now.
Intercultural Communication requires both parties to understand the norms and the subtle cues that tell us how we’re supposed to behave. In person, this can be hard enough. Electronically, across oceans, this can be impossible.
Because I’m back in the US, I have been doing a lot of emailing with people in Spain who are helping me. People like my lawyer and others, who require documents and who email me to send them said documents so that I can complete transactions. I’m thrilled they’re working on my behalf and usually, I respond right away with whatever they need. OK, sometimes they have to wait for me to wake up, but I try to be Johnny on the Spot.
In the US, when someone asks you to send them something, they acknowledge they got it. Something as simple as:
‘Thanks for following up. I’ll get back to you as soon as I have more information.’
Sometimes they even tell you they’ll get back to you within X number of days! They don’t write a novel. Their response takes all of 15 seconds to write, and that way, we’re all on the same page that what is required has been received and progress is being made. In Spain, this has not been my experience. Here’s how it goes.
- I get an email to provide something, answer a question, etc.
- I respond with the information requested.
- I hear no response.
- I wait a day and email back to inquire if the requester got the documents or if they require anything else from me.
- I hear nothing back
- I wait 2 days and then send them a WhatsApp message asking if they got my email.
- They send me an ‘Of Course I did’ response
- I write back ‘I didn’t get an email response so I just wondered’
- They write back ‘I would have asked again if I didn’t get it.’
- I write ‘Oh, OK. I’ll just wait to hear back from you’
- They write back ‘Fine’
I don’t know about you, but when you get a text from anyone that says ‘Fine’, they’re not ‘Fine’. They’re about to break up with you. It’s probably not as terse as it sounds, but it’s not how I have communicated with anyone, EVER – Unless I wanted to break up with them. But I’m not alone in this expat communication vacuum. I was having drinks with my friend, Curt the other day. He lives in Greece, but is back for the holidays, and I was explaining my communications challenges.
‘Yes!! It’s the same in Greece. You email someone, they respond with a question, you answer the question – then nothing. They never say they got your response. You have no idea. Weeks go by and then all of a sudden you get the stamp you needed or something else. You have no visibility into the process or how it all came about. You just have to wait and trust somebody has what they need and they’re doing something!’
Sure, I’m a writer now, and outside of moving to Spain, I make my own schedule. But I came from the world of business, where communication was the key to making money and moving the capitalist ball down the field. This is all going to take some getting used to. But I’m sure I’ll be OK. Luckily, I have Jeff. And as long as he never WhatsApps me ‘Fine’ I actually will be fine. Cause we’re in this together.