Wednesday, October 19, 2011

How to Fight with Your Mother in Paraguay or A Guide to Indirect Communication

As a nation, Paraguay engages in a lot of indirect communication.  Of course, when speaking in generalizations regarding an entire country, exceptions occur (er, certain radical terrorist organizations, for example).  However, if the Emily Post Institute ever decides to publish an edition of her rules regarding proper etiquette and social behavior for Paraguayan audiences, page one will read: never confront anyone about anything or offer a clear opinion any topic (except soccer).

As the type of person who has, on at least one occasion, “told it like it is,” this particular social adjustment required a delicate hand.  I work best when all the cards are on the table.  When I have the opportunity to obsess about a situation, I will take it.  If I receive unclear feedback, believe me, I will concoct the worst case scenario in my head and assume that I have offended everyone.  How will I ever adjust to a place where straight answers have gone the way of the dinosaurs?

As it turns out, this lifestyle has a few perks.  Awkward situations rarely arise.  In fact, the word doesn’t even directly translate.  One night, while sitting around with a handful of former Spanish majors and a few native speakers, we realized that the term awkward does not exist within the Spanish language.  Strange, difficult, uncomfortable, embarrassment (extraño, difícil, incómodo, verguenza)- these all make the list.  Yet nothing quite captures awkward.

Think of the possibilities.  You never have to say no to an invitation again.  Don’t feel like going to yet another birthday party on a Tuesday night?  No need to worry about hurting someone’s feeling with a firm “no”, when “sure” or “maybe” will do the trick just fine.  This may seem troublesome to the one throwing the party, but Paraguay has this figured out too.  Always assume, regardless of response, that one third of those invited to an event, will attend the event.  Simple.

Organizational non-confrontation works great during actual arguments as well.  For example, earlier this week I decided to start a fight with my home-stay mother.  She enjoys bossing me around and, upon crossing an invisible line over the weekend, I decided my foot needed to come down.  She knew she crossed the line as soon as her pinky toe creeped over it, but I made the issue known.  For our battlefield, I chose the always risky dinner table.

Paraguayan mothers feed their guests with the force of ten Italian grandmothers.  Making it away from any meal before hitting 1500 calories demands carefully timed eating and precision guilt navigation.  Rarely will you have the option to walk away from seconds without deep interrogation.  For a while, I said yes to extra helpings in the interest of avoiding an argument.  With time, I learned how to eat just slow enough as to not attract attention, but to still finish after everyone else.  Thus, confusing the option for seconds as others have already left the table.  This time, however, I had no intention of carefully navigating anything.

During lunch, as I finished my last few bites and placed my fork on the edge of my plate, my “mom” offered me seconds.  I looked her straight in the eye and said “no, thank you.”  She, upon realizing the dogfight in front of her, she accepted the challenge by giving me “the look” and sitting down.  (All Paraguayan women of a particular age know and regularly employ “the look”.  Imagine the most disappointed look you’ve ever received from your own mother.  Now double it.  Now add a flash of rage.  Now hold it for at least seven seconds.  That’s “the look”.) 

We’ve gone on like this for three whole days.  Neither one of us has any intention of discussing the issue and every other exchange we share seems perfectly normal.  Despite all this passive aggression, somehow our differences have started to work themselves out in silence.  I think the argument has begun to break.  Tonight, as I declined a second helping of dinner, she looked me straight in the eye and asked, “But wasn’t it delicious?”  This must mean I won.


  1. Joanna I so enjoy your blog! You have a beautiful way of expressing yourself. Andy read it also. He is actually considering Peace Corps before graduate school (at least for right now!) What is the project you and Kevin are working on there? How is it going? Know you are busy but keep the blogs coming. Say hi to Kevin.

  2. Awkward and creepy...words that don't translate. Idk what that says about us though. ha ha

    And, I LOVE the's like my words are dancing around issues..and I love dancing.

    Another good strategy to use instead of saying no is the famous "Si Dios quiere...y la virgen permite"(the celestial check and balance). You don't commit and you leave it up to the heavens to decide.

  3. Judy- Thank you for your kind words. I have to admit, I'm not even a little surprised that Andy is interested in PC. It's quite a ride.

    Manuel- This one is definitely making it into the rotation. The virgin comes up a lot around these parts. P.S. It's nice to have a break from creepy- I use that word way too much in English. Awkward, though, I'll never escape. :)