Don Federico Sizes Us Up
ERIC R. ADAMS
Here’s an eye opener— We think Germans are boors, but Latin America thinks we’re much worse
IT WAS Prince Stephan zu Schaumburg Lippe, of the German Embassy in Buenos Aires, who, early in the war, asked an elevator boy in Montevideo’s smart Hotel Nogaro if he could speak German. When the boy told him he couldn’t, the prince replied, “Well, you’d better learn. You are going to need it soon.”
Even if the prince had not been wrong, his arrogance would still have met with the stern disapproval of South America’s 1,200,000 first and second generation Germans.
For more than 100 years Germans in Latin America have followed a rigid pattern of tact, courtesy and precise correctness in handling South Americans. Regardless of what they may have thought or felt they have conducted themselves so expertly in the business of getting along with our southern neighbors that today in Latin America—after six years of trying to conquer the world, untold atrocities and antiGerman propaganda from all quarters of the globe— the German is still liked as much as ever, and certainly as much as any other foreigner, including the Canadian !
That’s a pretty strong statement to make, so before I go any farther I’d better explain that I’ve just come back from South America. I went there in 1942 and travelled extensively in the three years that followed, and talked with citizens of almost every one of the 20 Latin republics. I found that the average Latin American considers the average German a thoroughly nice individual and a good man to do business with.
I decided to find out why. How has the German promoted himself so successfully? To what extent should we imitate him, and what mistakes do North Americans instinctively make in their dealings with Latinos?
First of all, says Latin America, we need some of the politeness for which Germans south of the Rio Grande have become famous. I had this fact driven home in a personal way when I visited a Chilean tailor early in my trip south. I needed clothes, so I dropped in with a couple of Chilean friends and told him I wanted a suit—at least I started to, when my companions interrupted and rescued me from a bad social blunder.
I learned that you do business with Don Federico, the tailor, only after extensive enquiries about his health, that of his señora and his three children. If it’s summer, you can ask his advice on a good resort and compliment him for it. Politics are good for a mention, too, before you approach the delicate matter of a
suit. Then you ask if Don Federico would consider accepting your business, stressing, of course, that you are in no way suggesting that he rush the garment.
MAYBE YOU think this is a lot of nonsense. Well, Don Federico doesn’t and neither do 125 million other Latins. The simple truth is that he and his colleagues have been brought up under an old Spanish code which stresses the social graces. That is a fact which the German in South America never forgets for an instant. You’ve no idea how rude a Latin thinks you are if you tackle business without preamble. You know, and he knows, that the final object is for one of you to give the other money for service or goods, but to stress that, in their view, is not mannerly. The North American tendency to “get down to brass tacks” at the drop of a hat causes Latins to brand us as “dollar crazy,” “money mad,” “insincere,” and a lot of other things. We’ll never match Latin politeness, but it doesn’t do any harm to try.
It’s true that Latin America’s charge of “bad manners” is aimed more specifically at the United States than at Canada, but don’t get too smug about that. Canadians in South America seem instinctively to make exactly the same personal mistakes as the Yanquis. It’s only lack of numbers that has so far saved us from individual criticism—something we should avoid.
South America is becoming more Canada-conscious every day. I saw a movie short on British Columbia while I was in Chile. I saw one on Ontario in a theatre in Cali, Colombia, and in the lavish Rex Theatre on neon-clustered Calle Corrientes in Buenos Aires I saw one on Ottawa. I saw many newsreel shots of Canada’s /irmed forces and Canada’s wartime industrial achievements. The Latins were interested; a lot of them asked me questions. It made me realize that the day is coming when our blunders will no longer mingle unnoticed with those of unfortunate Americans.
A major point in the South American’s complaint list is that most North Americans working in South America never learn Spanish properly. In this respect we’re just as bad as the average American, and that’s pretty bad. Our diplomats, I would like to stress, are not offenders, but a lot of other Canadians are. Of a staff of six Canadian girl workers in an office in Santiago, only one could speak passable Spanish.
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All six had been in South America on war jobs for at least two years, and three of the girls made no secret of the fact that they weren’t even bothering to learn the language. It was too easy to find Latins who spoke English. There is something even worse than lack of interest—the North American who treats Spanish as a huge joke. He says, “Buenas noches, señor,” and then chuckles as if it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard.
There are still others who are not even courteous about their inability to handle the language. I heard a Canadian in one of the best restaurants in Montevideo say loudly to a waiter: “If you can’t speak English get me someone who can.” The bewildered waiter got a head waiter to take care of his visitor, whom I later heard say: “Anybody who wants to talk to me can speak English—or else.”
Well, buddy, in trade circles that “or else” doesn’t leave much to the imagination. The smiling and courteous German will be only too glad to take over for you. In fact he feels he is extra capable.
The Latinos figure we regal’d their countries as places in which to put over business deals, make all we can and then get out. If we planned otherwise, they argue, we’d start by learning the language, just as the German does, and then we’d marry their daughters, change nationality and become real citizens—again as the German does.
But what about the Good Neighbor Policy? What about the glowing terms in which Pan-Americanism is painted, and what’s wrong with frequent North American references to helping struggling South America, and soon? The answer is—everything!
Fictitious inter-American sentiment has been strained virtually to the breaking point. Anyone who has lived in South America for more than five minutes knows that Latins hate and detest the words “Good Neighbor.” In the first place, shrewder Latinos politely argue that certain political, financial and business ventures of the past, sponsored or supported by American elements, were anything but the projects of good neighbors. And in the second place, the whole idea of a
“good will policy,” with occasional something-for-nothing premiums, is entirely too condescending to suit even the humblest South American, as any German could tell you.
South Americans aren’t panhandlers. They’re proud people. They don’t like this “big brother” stuff and they don’t want to be “helped.” They want a chance to help themselves with needed machinery, supplies, mutually beneficial trade agreements and assistance in setting up their own commercial enterprises, but NOT free handouts. Anything of this sort causes the South American to seek the “gato escondido” —the “hidden cat,” South American equivalent to our nigger in the woodpile. And at the same time he resents the manner in which it subtly suggests that he is inferior, in constant need of instruction and guidance and gifts.
Germany has always been very careful to avoid talk of the Good Neighbor type in Latin America. A plan based completely on an accurate understanding of the Latin mind takes the place of high-pressure publicity and catch phrases.
One of the major ways in which Germany built trade and won good will was to accept the South American as an equal. North America behaved less wisely. In fact Latin America calls our attitude in this respect a major cause for discord in hemisphere harmony.
“You think we’re inferior to you,” the South American charges, “and you don’t even hide the fact very successfully.”
They Are “Americans” Too
I agree with him. All over the continent, in swank bars and clubs—quite the equal to anything up here—visiting North American businessmen refer constantly to “the natives.” Their chatter reaches the ears of these same “natives” and is resented bitterly. Also, the South Americans don’t like the way citizens of the United States monopolize the term “American.”
“We are also Americans,” argue Latinos. “We’re South Americans and you’re North Americans.”
We Canadians can’t do much about this, but at least in dealing with Latins we can respect their viewpoint and refer always to the “norteamericanos” rather than to the “americanos.” The term “Yanqui,” frequently used in South America, is not considered to be in the best of taste. It would not normally be used in polite speech, for
example. It is derogatory in a subtle sort of way.
To return to giving the Latin his due, it should be stressed that North American failure to recognize South American cultural achievement is the major sore point. Quite frankly, the Latin feels he’s miles ahead of us, culturally speaking, although he’s far too polite to say so.
Better-class Latinos frequently speak excellent English and often French or German as well. They have a deep love of music, the ballet and associated arts. Each is intimately acquainted with the history of his own country and has a pretty sound knowledge of world affairs. An ability to thoroughly understand this has put pesos in German pockets.
Before South America broke with the Axis—something which many Latins strongly maintain was inspired by Allied pressure and fear of postwar discrimination, rather than by actual hatred or fear of Germany—splendidly produced books and magazines emphasized the German appreciation of Latin culture and desire to contribute to it.
German cultural relations experts worked smoothly to win South American good will. Few of these men were less than 60 years of age; they held degrees from European universities and knew what they were talking about. In startling contrast were American cultural “experts,” some of them mere boys, hearty and eager and admittedly well-educated, but still a poor match for their seasoned competitors. Their offerings of movie cartoons, lectures, and other ill-inspired “educational material” served mainly to provoke amusement. More than one Latin remarked that if this was the height of American cultural achievement—then the popular Latin conception of the “Colossus of the North,” as a nation of chewing gum and gangsters, swing bands and halfdressed girls, was not too inaccurate.
What Can We Do in Canada?
We can do quite a bit right in Canada. To emphasize this fact I’d like to tell you of a conversation I had with an important wholesaler in Bogota, Colombia. This man ran a large hardware and light machinery company. His general sentiment, I soon learned, was strongly pro-Ally, but when it came to business he told me bluntly he’d pick a German any day.
“What makes you say that?” I asked him.
“Look,” he told me. “About a year before the war a German salesman for a big Berlin supply house suggested I should visit Germany. He told me I could see at close hand exactly what his firm could do for me, and the trip would pay for itself.
“I thought it over and decided to accept. Through the co-operation of the German Government I was able to buy German money—‘business marks’ —even cheaper than ‘tourist marks,’ which were still cheaper than the ordinary marks one buysatofficialrates.
“I landed at Hamburg with my wife and one child and was greeted by a nurse who spoke perfect Spanish.
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She took care of the little girl. I met numerous people who were well acquainted with the politics, cultural background and the history of my country I was taken to a club designed to promote German-South American friendship and found there a room for each one of the Latin republics. I was surrounded by Spanish-speaking people, treated really and truly as a ‘good neighbor’ and yet not once did I hear that hateful word. They acted as if they were glad to have me, not as if I were lucky to be in their midst
“And finally, the company with which I was dealing showed a splendid knowledge of my country and my problems. They exhibited a willingness to supply me with things tailored to Colombian needs. Always they spoke m terms of South America, never suggesting, as some North American salesmen are inclined to do, that since a product had proven satisfactory in home territory it ought to be good enough for me.”
Are We As Thoughtful ?
When he asked me if Canada had a similar good will institution or companies prepared to take such efficient care of visiting Latin Americans I could only say that I doubted it.
“You should have those things,” he told me earnestly. “You’ve no idea how Latins would appreciate such treatment in Canada. We’ve had no unpleasant experiences with you to make us doubt your intentions. In fact we’re just starting to think about you. You could gain so much by a wellplanned campaign to win Latin good will.”
Newspaper reports say that Canada’s Trade Minister Mackinnon sees no reason why our business with Latin America can’t hit the $200-million-ayear mark “in the immediate future.” In fact Canadian exports to South America for the first nine months of 1945 were nearly double the total exports for all of 1939. But if we want to stay in that market there are things we should do.
Even such a simple thing as being careful to avoid Canadian publication of material in which Latins are treated with little regard for their own feelings would be a step in the right direction. It is beyond belief how rapidly such things find their way to Latin America, and the comments they arouse.
Only recently a Canadian advertisement appeared that showed a fat, indolent and decidedly greasy-looking Latin asleep on the ground, soundly enjoying his daily “siesta,” while in the background a donkey waited. South Americans don’t like being pictured like that. Most of them don’t ride donkeys any more than you do, nor do they sleep on the ground.
South Americans also don’t like the numerous, silly, popular songs in which their countries, their customs or themselves are distorted beyond recognition or treated offensively. However, in mentioning music it should be pointed out that such artists as Canada’s Alys Robi, whose French versions of popular Latin American songs reveal more than a casual ability to interpret South American music and themes, represent the bright side of the picture. Canada needs more of this, and every such achievement should be brought to the full attention of cultureconscious Latin America.
We should frankly expose—and take steps to avoid repeating—approaches and attitudes offensive to Latin America. In other words, we should do everything we can to make ourselves “simpático,” which is a good old South American word describing a nice guy, someone with whom you can get along.