When I met my in-laws for the first time, my husband told me to greet them by saying, “Bendicion”. This is their Puerto Rican custom as a sign of respect when greeting elders. Coming from a Mexican-American family, I was taught to say, “Mucho gusto” and shake hands when meeting anyone. I was very nervous and unsure what to do as our car pulled up to his tio’s home, I kept repeating this new word to myself making sure I pronounced it correctly. When he opened the door, I nervously said both, “Benicion, mucho gusto,” while reaching out to shake hands. It is an awkward memory I wish I could do over. Thankfully, the next time we visited his family, I was able to redeem myself and handled this greeting correctly by only saying, “Bendicion.”
After all this time, I finally felt validated after reading about William B. Gudykunst’s Anxiety Uncertainty Management Theory. It explains there is a “role of anxiety and uncertainty in individual’s communicating with host culture members when they enter that new culture.” It seems my experience wasn’t so unusual and possibly could have been predicted given my nervousness at that time.
Another reading, “Is Culture Something We Have or Something We Do?— Descriptive Essentialist to Dynamic Intercultural Constructivist Communication” by Øyvind Dahl, reminded me of this experience. Though one may know how they ought to behave in a particular setting, human behavior is unpredictable. As Dahl explains, “Behavior depends on position, status, situation, purpose and mutual relationship.”
Applying this to my experience helped to understand cultural communication. Though my and my husband’s family share a Latino culture, we each have a separate, regional subculture. Researching this a bit more, I came across an expert of the book This Bridge We Call Communication: Anzaldúan Approaches to Theory, Method, and Praxis (edited by Leandra Hinojosa Hernández and Robert Gutierrez-Perez). Within that excerpt, it explained how the term Hispanic was to encompass people of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American decent. However, their research has proven (what we already knew ourselves) that there are many differences of culture and perception of culture among these nationalities.
The first time meeting my husband’s family was on Thanksgiving. Instead of a turkey dinner as I was accustomed to, we had pernil, which is roasted pork, a traditional Puerto Rican dish. I clearly remember his tia sternly saying to me, “We’re Puerto Rican. We don’t have turkey here.” It was a wonderful dinner and the start to an interesting weaving of our Latino cultures.