Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Telephone Talk

Talking on the phone in Guatemala is always an awkward exchange. You can be confident that the person on the other line will answer the phone by saying “aló” which sounds like “hello” with a spanish accent. I have two theories on the word “aló.” Since the word means hello but is exclusively used when answering the phone I'm convinced that either A.) Spanish speakers made-up the word after the invention of the telephone for the sole purpose of answering calls like the American inventors demonstrated OR B.) they started using it later, mimicking the word they heard in movies or on television when english speaking actors picked up the telephone. One way or the other, “aló” must be the spanish phonetic for “hello”. (Please enlighten me if you know otherwise.) Glad that is settled, now moving on...

I have chosen to blog about Guatemalan telephone etiquette because I have recently been subject to an alarming number of awkward phone conversations. Let me explain. One of the main projects I have with my Cooperative is helping them package and sell their salt on the market. However, before we do anything with the product we must first determine if packaging and selling salt to the consumer has more profit potential then just selling the it to a middle man (which they currently do now). To determine profitability we have begun a cost analysis. How much does it cost to rent the salinas, how much do they pay for labor, how much do they spend on gas for the water pump etc, etc. Since we need to include packaging costs in this cost analysis I now spend a good amount of time on the phone calling up printers and packaging contacts to get price quotes.

Now let me try to explain how one of these phone calls plays out. We’ve already reviewed the prevailing telephone introduction word: “aló”. Not too complicated. Where the exchange starts to get slightly uncomfortable is during what I call the “body paragraphs” of the conversation. If you haven’t noticed, I equate my phone conversations to a standard five paragraph essay because I feel like I need to prepare for them as such. The body paragraphs, or meat of the conversation, prove to be difficult simply due to my restricted knowledge of spanish printing and packaging technical terms and my inability to demonstrate my needs with good old fashioned hand gestures through the phone.

But, the telephone awkwardness hits its apex at the conclusion of the conversation. In Guatemala there is no common way to hang-up the phone. They don’t use “good-bye”. Instead there is “bueno pues”, “adios pues” and “vaya pues”. Each meaning something along the lines of “alright then”, “good-bye then” and “go then”. A Guatemalan will repeat these words numerous times to signal he/she is ready to get off the phone. With each repetition the voice on the other end of the line gets fainter and fainter, sounding more and more distant, as if they were actually turning around and walking away from the conversation. What gets confusing is after a handful of “vaya pueses” or “adios pueses” I’m stuck trying to decide how many more times I need to say goodbye before the conversation is going to end. To demonstrate, hanging-up goes a little something like this:

Anna: Bueno, gracias por su ayuda
Packaging Contact: bueno pues, adios
Anna: Adios
Packaging Contact: adios pues
Annalisa: Adios.
Packaging Contact: bueno pues, vaya pues, vaya pu...
Annalisa hangs up

Anna: Well, thanks for your help.
Packaging Contact: alright then, goodbye
Anna: Goodbye
Packaging Contact: goodbye then
Annalisa: Goodbye
Packaging Contact: alright then, go then, go the...
Annalisa hangs up.

See, awkward.


  1. Finally caught up on my reading...keep up the great work...miss you little sis!!

  2. I am an American citizen (mexican descent) who married a Guatemalan women in September 2010. I have been living here since then. You are absolutely correct about the way the say good is awkard, ¨Dios pues. vaya pues, Dios pues, Ba pues¨ is actually a bit frustating for us Americans who are used to getting things done quickly and efficiently. It is almost like there is a feeling or obiligation not make sure the other party is left feeling ok after the conversation. You make a very interesting observation that has been bothering me as well.....