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Lesson from Slow-Talking Guatemalans

Having returned from a 15-day vacation in Guatemala, I have been thinking about what I experienced that relates to this blog and business writing. Here is what I realized:

Throughout the trip, I prided myself on speaking Spanish, with no lapses into English just because the hotel clerk or driver spoke some English. It was a treat to understand so much of the Spanish I heard.

But it wasn't only my ability in Spanish that helped me understand. It was that virtually all the Guatemalans spoke Spanish slowly to me. I did not realize this was happening until they would break off their conversation with me to conduct a rapid-fire exchange with another Guatemalan. When they finished that exchange, they would slip back into their slow pace to talk with me.

We business communicators can learn a lesson from the slow-talking Guatemalans, who give their audience what the audience needs. If the other person needs a slow pace, they slip into it patiently and with a smile.

Sometimes we business writers think our readers should be able to recognize dozens of acronyms, find action items scattered in a three-screen email, or unearth and apply instructions buried in our long, complicated threads. But that way of thinking is doomed to fail. It is akin to Guatemalans pouring out streams of flowing Spanish in the face of stuttering, befuddled visitors. Yes, perhaps those tourists should understand and speak Spanish better, but the Guatemalans know they don't. So the Spanish speakers slow down, and the conversations succeed.

Can you apply the lesson of the Guatemalans In your business communication? Is there anything you could be doing differently to meet the needs of your audience?

Syntax Training

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

8 comments on “Lesson from Slow-Talking Guatemalans”

  • I think a lot of our presenters could do with this advice. It is not only that presenters fail to recognize that the other party should understand what is being said and digest it in order for the presentation to be succesful. Another bane is I have seen presenters speak in such a low voice that the audience has to strain its ears to catch the presentation. The key to speaking is to make what is said very clear, audible, and understandable. Without it, it is just a waste of time.

  • I loved it! Conveying ideas in a simple and clear way shows respect and consideration to the audience and generates a positive response. Look at how much you appreciated it!

  • The theme behind my blog is “Keep it simple, clear & uniquely yours.” The gracious Guatemalans would receive major gold stars.

    Another thing it shows is respect. You showed respect in using their language (not like some who think the whole world should speak English for them). The Guatemalans showed you respect by adjusting their speech to make sure you understood them and that you were not embarrassed.

    Thanks for another thought=provoking post, Lynn! And welcome home.

  • Hi, R., Claudia, and Cathy. I am gratified that you took the idea and ran with it: Clear, understandable, simple, respectful, considerate, gracious–your words capture the communication of the Guatemalans–and of good business communicators.

    Cathy, thanks for pointing out that their actions spared me embarrassment. That’s a good reminder for all of us.


  • I recently returned from a trip to Quebec City in Canada where they mostly speak French and I experienced something similar. We made ourselves understood the best we could by speaking each other’s language as slowly as possible. One woman told me they would just like us to try their language instead of insisting they speak ours. As it was I had some very good experiences. Sometimes it was more like charades, but it worked for all of us and I got to practice my French 🙂

  • Dear Lynn,

    I agree that speaking slowly when you are dealing with someone who is struggling with the language is a good idea.

    It’s probably also a good idea to ensure your audience can follow.

    What I object to is patronising slow-speak. There we go – I just made up a word.

    I’ll give you two examples. I was studying as a lone parent and needed to claim benefits during the summer break. The lady on the phone obviously assumed claimants are not very bright. She spoke really slowly in short sentences and ended every explanation with ‘do you understand?’ I gave her a kind of linguistic slap by replying in ‘government speak’.

    A few years ago I had an accident and needed a wheelchair for a short time. I found a lot of people started speaking reeaalllyyyy sloowwwwly.

    Extremely annoying.

    Best regards,


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