“Wow, if the national park was a house, this would be its bedroom.”
“Yeah, I know,” I reply. “This place is incredible.”
“I mean, this is the heart of the park!”
His love for the natural world emanates through his entire being. He is in his element when on the park’s trails. And with a last name that means Wild and Natural, he may have been born for this type of work.
As I admire his expressed appreciation for the park, I read something else in his eyes. Suddenly the tone in his voice becomes clear to me. While walking the proposed route for the new trail for the first time, I think I detect a hint of upset. There must be something going on behind his words.
I begin to dig into a hidden world.
Sometimes I feel like an Anthropologist on-assignment in Mexico; I must unearth the subtleties that lie beyond the obvious. What is clear to a Mexican can sometimes be murky for foreigners. There is simply too much implied and too much understanding taken for granted.
Interpreting another culture is like looking through a camera lens: while you see something real in the frame, the lens make it impossible to see the whole picture.
One thing that I have learned thus far is that “direct” is a dirty word in Mexico, and that many levels of subtext are added to what you say or do. I wrote about this as #6 in my list of 15 things that might not exist in Mexico. A simple confirmation takes five minutes of talking, explaining, consoling, re-confirming, and asserting confianza.
Coming from a more direct culture, it can be tempting to say “Gosh, just tell me what you mean! Don’t turn this conversation into a crossword puzzle full of clues, guess-work and eraser marks!” Or even better, to use a funny Mexican phrase: Ponte trucha! Become like a trout! This phrase is based on the fact that trout can go anywhere they want in a river, even if that place is upstream. What a perfectly indirect way of asking someone to be direct.
When meeting the park’s new Sub-Director, I cheerfully introduced myself in the most Mexican way that I could. I took lots of time to explain my background and credentials, and I used the formal usted rather than tu until I was given permission otherwise.
I also made time to explain in detail what it means to work with a foreigner. Sometimes I may say or do things that seem odd or rude, but that these moments are likely cultural misunderstandings. That although I am an adult, I do not always know the correct way of expressing myself, culturally or linguistically. And that open communication is a great mitigation technique; I am always open to hear about any concerns that he has about something that I said or did.
He responded that he understood. Of course he will not make assumptions or infer subtext behind my words. And to please for goodness sake, use the tu form with him. He told me that we have total confianza. What a wonderful introduction to a very great guy! I look forward to working with him more.
Confianza in Mexico is something that you have to earn, and you must re-affirm it over and over. It is fragile. My relationship with each of my colleagues, including the Sub-Director, need to be maintained by showing that I respect them, that I care about their opinions, and that we are all on the team together. I do not take confianza for granted.
In the United States, we oscillate between directness and indirectness.
For example, conference attendees are able to brainstorm with complete strangers without the need to establish trust and comfort first. They can be honest, direct, and frank from the very beginning. On the flip side, mention a woman’s weight or someone’s race and you are likely to imply a mountain of things that you did not mean. These particular topics require agile, light indirectness when mentioned in the United States.
For many years now, I have been together with a guy who I met in the USA, but who is a foreigner from a much more direct culture. Putting myself in his shoes is much easier now that I have lived in Mexico. For him, the USA can be a communication mine-field. It has happened more than once that people assume that his blunt statements carry American cultural baggage, and they come to the conclusion that he is brash and brazen. It is an unfair assumption that can make everyone uncomfortable.
But that is cross-cultural communication: it requires patience, understanding, and compassion. It does not work without effort and love.
With that in mind, I gently invite my concerned co-worker to share any doubts that he might have about the trail route. I start the conversation by saying: Con toda confianza … with total trust and confidence. More than six months after reading the project proposal and more than a month after hearing about the location of the route, he finally confesses his concerns.
The first is one is a common refrain played again and again in Mexico.
Most who work in the Environmental Field in Mexico believe that the vast majority of their fellow countrymen lack knowledge of proper environmental ethic. If access to nature is opened, everyone will have big parties and leave all of the trash behind, or that they will graffiti cacti and rocks. That love-struck men will pick all of the flowers for their girlfriends or that poachers will remove endangered plants so that they can sell them. Therefore, people should not have access to nature because their behavior destroys it. Why open access to the heart of the park? Nature should be a hidden world; this is the only way to protect it.
The second reason is a bit heartbreaking for me.
He feels powerless. The park’s Director has already formally approved the project, and the grant money is in the bank. And money for the park is not easy to come by: This is a park that only has two 7-liter backpacks for water to fight forest fires.They almost never have office supplies, toilet paper, or gasoline to get supplies from one part of the park to another. Five employees have not been paid at least once during the past year. So in his mind, we had better use this money while we have it, even if it means doing something that does not make sense to him.
So I listen to him, honestly and openly. Maybe I projected my cultural ideals upon this setting and his concerns are completely justified. After all, he knows Mexico a lot more intimately than I do!
In my experience as an environmental educator, I learned that people will not protect nature unless they love it or unless there is a serious economic reason. And people will not love nature unless they have experienced it first-hand. So when I saw how special this national park is, I wanted to share it with the locals.
It is one of the few places in Mexico that you can get lost in a world of misty fog and fir trees 40 meters tall. The world of exhaust fumes and the pulsing beat of banda music fades away, replaced with waterfall burbles, bird songs, and clean air that chills noses. In my opinion, this access is exactly what Mexico needs if they want to protect their incredible biodiversity and natural landscapes. People need to experience the forest if you want them to put effort into conserving it.
So what do you do? How do you develop sustainably? How do you protect nature while sharing it? My solution is this: consider my co-workers concerns seriously; consult others; and work out a compromise that fits the park, my co-workers, and Mexico. Because without consensus, sustainability is impossible.
And we will find consensus by communicating across cultural divides, together, con toda confianza y amor.
“Great things are done when men and mountains meet. This is not done by jostling in the street.”
– William Blake
Making me smile
- Borrowed words from English into Mexican Spanish: chance (CHAN-say) for possibility, lonche (LON-chay) for lunch, sleeping (e-SLEE-pin) for sleeping bag, and my favorite…smoking (e-SMO-kin) for a men’s suit. They are just so cute and easy to remember
- Going to my first spinning class in Mexico, pronounced in Spanish as es-PIN-ning. I sweat up a storm while peddling to loud Latin pop music. It was a blast!
- We developed some anti-littering sign messaging to be installed along the trail. They are, of course, indirect and positive. For example: Un bosque limpio habla bien de todos (A clean forest speaks well of everyone)
- Inventing and posting some new recipes on Beyond Vitamin T, Peace Corps Mexico’s food blog. Check ’em out!