How to communicate like a coastal Colombian

By Shanna Crumley
Aug. 6, 2015

Have you ever seen a coastal Colombian talk? 

It's 85 percent body language with animated facial expressions, broad hand gestures and full-body emphasis on the Most Important Points. Even their feet are fidgety, listo to break into a salsa step. Imaginate what it's like when the subject matter actually involves dancing! (Shakira's hips and Miss Universe 2015's curves are testament to this style.)

Because body language is so central to the culture, the idiosyncratic gestures and facial expressions are essential communication tools to survive as adopted costeños. And all Peace Corps volunteers in Colombia are adopted costeños because PC Colombia is concentrated in the Caribbean region, distributing Volunteers in cities and villages across three coastal provinces.

Now you too can learn the local body language dialect! Once you master these gestures, your cultural fluency will skyrocket, your language skills will improve and costeños everywhere will adore you (if only to laugh at you).

How to Ask for Clarification With Your Nose 

How to Ask for Clarification With Your Nose 

This is the costeño shrug, the Colombian gesture for the universal "huh?" Use this gesture to say you don't understand, to ask for the speaker to repeat their statement, to indicate a doubt or question or to amuse your host family.

Be careful not to overemphasize the gesture, as this may lead to the universal "you smell bad" face or worse, premature wrinkles.

Also, How to Ask for Clarification Like a Man 

How to Ask for Clarification Like a Man 

How to Point With Your Lips 

How to Point With Your Lips 

The quintessential costeño gesture is the lip point. The second you do that, you're pegged as an insider. Here, a real costeña demonstrates. This is my personal favorite gesture, because you can use it to talk about anything that's over there – "look over there at that pregnant nun" or "pass me that tripe soup" or "let's move over to that side of the bus."

How to Complain About Too Many/Too Much 

How to Complain About Too Many/Too Much 

"Full lleno," they say, or "full full." Appropriate uses: when the supermarket is packed with bargain-hunting stay-at-home moms. When your favorite bar is awash in tourists. When you accidentally catch the bus at 5:49 p.m. and it's overflowing with commuters and you have to stand between two sweaty men.

How to Indicate Money or Expense 

How to Indicate Money or Expense 

This gesture is perfect because it goes hand-in-hand with the "pupy" (snobby and/or rich and/or entitled) idea. Use this gesture to say, "they have money!" or "that's too expensive" or "everything has its price!" or "I am broke" (best accompanied with a mournful head shake).

How to Hail a Bus in Barranquilla 

How to Hail a Bus in Barranquilla 

Hail that bus in style! Stop in the middle of the sidewalk, lean out into the street and flag that baby down with a "come here!" wave of the hand. You look cooler if you make it a quick, subtle affair, but you risk missing the bus. Better you pull the brazen costeño and plant yourself at the edge of traffic, wave broadly and add a wolf whistle.

Don't forget: there are no designated bus stops – any moment you decide to take a bus, feel free to stop and hail one (this also applies to getting off). This is great because you can catch the bus as soon as you see it. This is not great because the driver will stop for every person who flags it down, resulting in stops every few feet. The schedule works accordingly.

How to Say It's Bad and/or Over 

How to Say It's Bad and/or Over 

This one works for two meanings. First, it's the sign for something negative. You use it talk about "a big problem" or "don't go there" or "I don't have any." It's a useful gesture because complaining is so much easier when you just have to make a quick neck jab and an exasperated face.

But it's also the typical indication of the end – the class is over, the money is gone, the fun is done. Se acabo la vaina! (The fun is over!)

And there you have it, a quick run-through of some essential costeño body language to liven up your communication style. Feel free to incorporate these into your daily conversations wherever you are – if they don't win you Colombian fans, they will at least serve as conversation starters. Buena suerte, good luck!

Shanna Crumley

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