Making Friends in Spanish

I remember the first time I was asked to consider the question “what is a culture” at university. I was already living in the UK and despite coming from Spain and having had close contact with other countries, all I could think about was all of the things that we can see (like the architecture, the music, the art, etc) So, basically, the more “obvious” expressions of a culture.

And then the teacher said: “Culture is what shapes our behaviour and structures a person's perception of the world”. I remember saying… wow, that's deep! And she said… Indeed, as deep as this… And showed us an iceberg!

Since then (15 years ago) I have widely seen the concept of culture represented with an iceberg figure, something like this:

Interesting, right? So, when we travel, live or meet someone from another culture, all we are presented with initially is the very tip of “their iceberg”. The visual and most obvious elements that let us know that are different from “our own”. And even those which seem the same or very similar are hardly ever the case!

Because understanding the deep complexities, repercussions and meaning of a particular culture is not something that we can do over a holiday, a work trip or even a long stay…

But the thing is, most of us who live in a different culture, travel a lot or are in close contact with people from different backgrounds are really looking for that connection, that “ease” in the interactions without the constant threat of misunderstanding, confusion and potential communication breakdown.

I can remember the first couple of years living in the UK (prior to that module on cultural awareness where my interest on the topic really grew and my self-awareness too!) that I felt pretty lost and disconnected from “my host culture”.

I can see now that I was in “cultural shock”, confused and going in circles from “what’s wrong with being open, honest and direct” to worrying about getting it wrong (not meeting the politeness standards, not knowing how to read people’s body language and implied meaning…) and eventually finding myself in awkward and uncomfortable situations (with no tools to turn the situation around)

The good news though is that there is a lot that we can do, that we don’t need years (and a module at uni) to minimise this! 

We can work on it even before we travel or have contact with people from other cultures.

But firstly, we need to tell ourselves that this is important. In fact, that is as important (if not more at times) than just learning the language of our new country. Because it is at this level (the depths of the iceberg) where we as people operate from on a daily basis and where most misunderstandings arise from.

So, we can start developing cultural intelligence, today, right now.

But, what is cultural intelligence?

Well, it’s developing an awareness, like a sixth sense if you like, of ourselves and others and being able to relate and work effectively across cultures.

It is the ability to experience new situations and adapt to other people without losing ourselves. It’s like a dance really… You don’t have to change who you are, but rather how you express it.

Because as romantic as it may sound “to have a friend” or develop a relationship with someone from a different culture, it does come with additional challenges. 

And, in order for things to work, both parties (at least to an extent) must be prepared to enter into potentially uncomfortable territory and face vulnerability, courage, humility, and lots of questioning.

But they also need to be prepared to have fun with it, because it takes humour indeed too! And this one is critical for me…To develop the ability to take the whole thing and yourself with lightness and amusement.

Because above all, this is an opportunity for both sides. An opportunity to get to know yourself and the other person better, to question “each other’s truths” and own perspectives, get out of your comfort zone and grow. It’s like getting rid of all the noise which is in the way (the depths of each other’s iceberg), being able to get past that and connect at a much deeper level, simply as humans.

Feliz día,


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