When I was learning Spanish at university, we might have talked about gestures once or twice. Mainly we focused on the grammar and on verbal communication, on the ability to write well and speak clearly. Especially when learning a language like Spanish, or Italian for that matter, gestures are however very significant in daily life language. On the other hand, in languages like Dutch gestures are more of an additional feature which can easily be omitted in daily life communication, although I do not deny that gestures can highly strengthen your speech acts in any language.
In our last two Intercultural Factors in Language Teaching classes we focused on this non-verbal communication, not only focusing on gestures, but as well as paralanguage (sounds produced by our articulatory system with no meaning, like “ahem”), proxemics or distance, facial expressions and eye contact. Another topic we talked about was the perception of time (chronemics), which with regard to the Dutch culture is a rather interesting issue. And what about meeting each other for the first time? In Spain it’s common to give each other two kisses, but in the Netherlands or China you’d better shake hands.
Concerning the gestures, the main focus should be on the gestures that have different meaning in different cultures in the first place. For instance, the gesture to say you love someone in Chinese means the opposite in Spanish and refers to cheating on someone. The Dutch gesture to say something is delicious, in Spanish means that you’re angry and are about to hit the other. What’s more, in Ghanaian culture the international symbol for something being good, the thumbs up, has always been a gesture with a negative and insulting meaning. However, due to globalization (and Facebook might actually play a role in this), nowadays the positive meaning of the like coexists with the negative one in Ghana.
For me, as a Dutchman, I like to keep my distance with the people I talk with. Nonetheless, this is also due to my own personality, since I don’t like to get really close to people really soon. For me, in Dutch culture this is no problem, but in Spanish culture on the other hand not getting close to someone is viewed upon as rather unfriendly. This was definitely something I had to get used to during the time I have lived in Spain, but right now I have got to the point I do not longer feel awkward when someone who doesn’t know me really well touches me or gets really close to me when we’re talking. Nonetheless, I myself still keep some distance whenever I start a conversation and there is no doubt that if I ever want to immerse into Spanish culture, I have to change this.
I know pretty will it’s hard to lose your cultural roots and it depends to what extent you are willing to change yourself. As do many people in the world, I like my own culture and I don’t want to get rid of it at all because it identifies as a person. There is no doubt I’ll put some water in the wine, as we say in Dutch, to get to a compromise between my own culture on one hand and the other I have to deal with, the Spanish one in this case. As for the chronemics, in the beginning I really found it hard that Spanish people have such a different perception time. For me, it’s a no go to arrive late without sending a message to the one who’s waiting for you, and it’s really rude not to turn up without saying anything. However, in the beginning I found myself several times being the first one to arrive and wait for the others. Now, I arrive late myself because I know the others will do so too… So, when I go back to the Netherlands in May, I definitely have to get loose of that!