Guatemalan Nonverbal Communication

After years of dedicated study in a foreign language- the hours spent cramming vocabulary, perfecting pronunciation, learning the ins and outs of verb tenses and inflictions- you finally feel confident enough to call yourself fluent in your language of choice and ready to put it to use on its own turf. You’re sure that, although some problems may arise, these language classes have prepared you enough to meet most communication needs in the culture. After all, you’ve invested a lot of time and money into this!

Well, dear language student, I have some bad news for you: If you haven’t spent some time researching the nonverbal communication of your host culture, you may find yourself nearly as lost as those who barely speak the language.

Nonverbal communication, the ways in which we deliver messages beyond the use of words, includes behaviors such as gestures, eye contact, use of distance, facial expressions, and many other actions without actual words that  deliver messages that don’t easily translate from culture to culture. Research into body language has revealed that most of our language is nonverbal and understanding these nonverbals is essential.

In Guatemala there are two distinct cultures using body language differently: the Ladinos of European descent and the Mayans. Both groups speak Spanish, but their body languages varies greatly. The Canadian Centre for Intercultural Learning offers some good tips for handling communication in the country and is my main source for the following examples.

Communication with Ladino Guatemalans:

Market in Guatemala City

Although it varies depending on gender and whether you’re talking with city dwellers or rural residents, Ladino Guatemalans tend to use a lot less personal space and a lot more touching than Americans. A kiss on the cheek between female friends or a hug between males is not uncommon. Firm hand shakes, big gestures, direct eye contact,  and showing emotions on one’s face or in public displays of affection are the norm. However, raising of the voice is seen as rude or aggressive and should be avoided.

Communication with Mayan Guatemalans:

In many ways, the use of nonverbals in the Mayan community is the complete opposite of those of the Ladinos. When communicating with the Mayans, one can expect more avoidance of eye contact and less touching, although not in a disrespectful sense. Also while Americans are accustomed to a firm handshake, the Mayan handshake is described as limp, more like a light touch. Using a firm handshake here would be uncomfortable and should be avoided. They also do not engage in public displays of affection as readily as the Ladinos. Rather, they’re more reserved and conservative in their emotional displays and in communication in general.

Hand Gesture to Avoid in Guatemala: La Mano Caliente

When most people think of nonverbal communication, gesturing immediately comes to mind. While I understand that hand gestures are only a small part of body language, I would be remiss not to include this one.

La Mano Caliente (“the hot hand”) looks like this and is considered highly offensive in Guatemala. According to The Nonverbal Code, “…anyone using it should be prepared to fight. If a person were to use la mano caliente to a military or police officer, the offender could expect to spend time in jail or do hard labor in the army.”

It is interesting that this hand gesture, often called “the fig“, actually means good luck in other cultures. It just goes to show the importance of learning appropriate nonverbals beforehand.


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