There’s no getting away from telemarketers, even here in Guatemala. For the past three mornings, my phone has rung and when I answer it, a man starts talking in rapid fire Spanish. I can only assume that he’s trying to sell me something because the only people to whom I’ve given my number are people that I know, and I’ve only had my current number since I arrived here at the beginning of April. I know he knows he’s not dialed my number in error because I don’t answer the phone with an alo, hola, sí or digamé but with a very unmistakably American accented English “hello.” I suppose I could ask the man to slow down and try to understand what he’s calling about, but I’m not interested in what he’s selling. And, because native speakers of Spanish are able to talk at seemingly machine gun-like speed, it’s near impossible to interject a despacio (slowly) into the conversation.
Syllables at the Speed of Sound
Although any language that you don't understand sounds like it's whizzing by at the speed of sound, there’s been actual research done on this. Without being too technical, researchers were somehow able to assign two critical values to each language they studied: the average information density for each of its syllables and the average number of syllables spoken per second in ordinary speech. The more data-dense the average syllable is, the fewer of those syllables that have to be spoken per second, which results in slower speech. English, with a high information density, pokes along at 6.19 syllables per second while Spanish, with a low density, roars by English at 7.82 syllables per second. There’s more to the study, which makes an interesting read, and you can find it here. I’m just thankful to know that it’s not my imagination.
He Could Be Calling at a Worse Time
Although I really don’t care about the telemarketer – at least he’s not calling at dinner time – I still want to be polite, so I try to interject no hablo español (not quite a lie but not quite the truth either. Where does one draw the line?). That doesn’t deter him though. He keeps talking, and more loudly I ask, ¿Habla inglés? This has no effect either. I guess he’s like telemarketers or so-called customer service representatives anywhere: he’s lost if you get him off the script.
In desperation, I repeat, no comprendo, no comprendo, silently thinking, I don’t want to understand what you’re saying. Finally, he gets the point and has enough English himself to say, “Bye.”
On Being an Extrajero
One of the nice things about being an extranjero, a foreigner, is that you can feign not knowing the language at all and get away with things that you otherwise couldn’t. I learned that a long time ago in Spain from another American I met there. For example, using a public bathroom and pretending not to know that the attendant is saying that you have to pay to use it, or breezing by the woman on the street in San Pedro who’s relentless in her efforts to sell you the same nasty, tasteless loaf of banana bread. Or, in shutting down a telemarketer.