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Rachel Newman


Professor Simpson

November 29, 2016

Final Research Project: Investigating a Culture

I had the pleasure of engaging in some acculturation by interviewing 60 year old Nelly

Kiser and learning about her culture firsthand. She immigrated here to America from El Salvador

in 1971 when she was only sixteen years of age. Her mother, Gladys, had immigrated three years

prior. Gladys brought her children to the United States to give them a better life, as she was poor

in El Salvador. Nelly was the first of her siblings to join her mother in the United States,

following were her brother and sister.

I. Background of the Culture

El Salvador is a small country that borders Guatemala, Honduras, and the Pacific Ocean. The

capital is San Salvador and their population is a little over six million people. They use the U.S.

dollar as currency. The primary language is Spanish, however, some speak a language known as

Nahua, (National Geographic). Nelly and her family all speak Spanish, and while she has an

accent, her English is very well and understood.

The climate in El Salvador is warm and humid, especially along the coast. Deeper into the

country you will find mountains and a rain forest known as Cloud Forest (National

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They have a President and they elect almost the same as the United States does, by popular

vote. However, they do not have an electoral college, and instead of a 4-year term their president

serves a 5-year term. The current president is Salvador Sanchez Ceren. Nelly tells me that when

she was living in El Salvador, even though they had a president, the military and the rich ran the

country. She said before the Civil War in 1980 there were fourteen known elite millionaire

families, and that these millionaires often told the president what to do. Once the Civil War

began most of these families fled the country in fear of their lives and fortunes.

The Civil War began when a group known as the FMLN, or the Farabundo Marti National

Liberation Front, was formed in October of 1980. Many of the poor supported this group because

it opposed the Salvadoran government, which, at that time, was corrupt. Human rights were

abused, many innocent people were killed, and eventually the United Nations became involved.

The United Nations helped in creating an agreement between the President, Alfredo Cristiani,

and the leader of the FMLN. After many meetings, December 15, 1992 was when the final

agreement created an official end to the war (Civil War in El Salvador).

Today, El Salvador is no longer controlled by the fourteen families or the National Guard, in

fact they no longer have a National Guard, and there is now a National Civilian Police. Nelly

tells me that there is still a stark difference between the rich and the poor. This gives me reason

to say that the El Salvadoran culture is a large power distance culture, meaning that there is a

respect for a power hierarchy. However, the individual families have a small power distance,

the parents and children work together in making decisions.

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II. Cultural Taxonomy

According to Hofstede, there are four value dimensions within a culture. They include:

individualism/collectivism, power distance, uncertainty avoidance, and femininity-masculinity.

These cultural value dimensions help highlight the differences and similarities of value patterns

between different cultures (Understanding Intercultural Communication 43).

The El Salvadoran culture is a collectivistic culture. Everything is looked at as what can we

do rather what can I do. I have the pleasure of spending a lot of time with Nellys family

because I date her son, Anthony. When Anthony and I first began dating his dad, Richard, would

always tease me and say when you date on you date the whole family, and this is true. If

Anthony and I have a problem, the whole family has a problem. And for the most part, Nelly

says that is true of the other families in El Salvador, too. Being a part of their family is very

different from many American families that I have encountered, especially my own. American

culture tends to be more individualistic, its all about what I can do to better myself. Not the

other way around.

As I stated above, the El Salvadoran culture has a large power distance within the economy,

however, within the family it is more of a small power distance.

El Salvador tends to have a high uncertainty avoidance, meaning that the culture prefers

clear-cut procedures and conflict-avoiding behavior. Knowing Nelly personally, I know that she

has a high uncertainty avoidance just as her culture. Very rarely is there conflict within the home.

The parental roles of mom and dad are clearly established, and Nellys kids, Anthony and

Catherine, always respect that. No questions asked.

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Speaking with Nelly she relates back to the days when she was in El Salvador, and then she

compares it to present-day El Salvador. Back when she was young she said that the culture had

more of a masculine value pattern as opposed to a feminine one. The men were in charge and

supposed to be the tough ones, however, as time has gone on she says that people are more

accepting and that the society now is a lot more feminine than before. Basically meaning that

social gender roles are fluid, whatever a man can do a woman can do (Understanding

Intercultural Communication 51).

III. Cultural Identity

Even though Nelly has been in the United States since she was sixteen, her cultural identity

salience is still very high. Cultural identity salience is also known as how we relate to our

larger culture (Understanding Intercultural Communication 79). Nelly has family in El Salvador

that she talks with often, and sometimes she even visits, although she says it has been about six

years since her last visit. Coincidentally, she told me that one of her nieces from El Salvador will

be coming to stay with their family for a whole month. She says that long visits such as these are

not uncommon.

When I asked Nelly about her ethnic identity she clearly identified as an El Salvadoran.

Some things that she also identifies as within the larger culture would be her faith, which is

Catholicism. Nelly attends church at least once a week, and practices prayer daily, praying to not

only God, but also various saints.

According to the International Religious Freedom Report from the U.S. Department of State,

a 2003 survey shows that 57.1% of El Salvadorans identified as Catholic. This also gives
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evidence that Nellys cultural identity is strong, as she can affiliate herself with the larger


I asked Nelly if she has ever faced discrimination here in America. She says that when she

first came here at sixteen the kids in her high school were a little biased. She went to a

predominantly white, upper class high school and she was only one of four Spanish speaking

students. The other three students were from Columbia. The students in her high school judged

them because of the simple fact that they did not speak English. These kids were obviously a part

of the ethnocentric stage of defense on the scale of intercultural sensitivity. Thinking that

because Nelly and the other three Columbians were different, that it was a negative thing as

opposed to something positive.

IV. Intercultural Interaction

Not only do I have the advantage of dating Nellys son and experiencing firsthand how the

family interacts, I also work with a few people who are from El Salvador as well and am able to

observe the way in which they communicate. Nelly tells me that their nonverbal

communication is similar to that of the United States. Their nonlinguistic cues, otherwise

known as communication by gestures, smiles, etc, include shaking their head to represent no or

when they dont want something, and their facial expressions which are also basically the same

as the United States. SADFISH, which are all the recognizable facial emotions that can be

understood across cultures include: Sadness, Anger, Disgust, Fear, Interest, Surprise, and

Happiness (Understanding Intercultural Communication 138). Their paralinguistic cues,

however, are a bit different. In Nellys home when someone is speaking in a loud tone it doesnt

necessarily mean that they are angry or upset, like that in American culture. It could mean that

they are trying to get their point across, that they are passionate about the subject in which they
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are speaking on, or they just want to be heard. Nellys son, Anthony, for example, is always loud

whenever he speaks Spanish. Any American who could not understand him would believe him to

be annoyed, angry, or even mad, but that isnt the case at all. I suppose this could also be seen as

paralanguage, and his tone would be considered a paralinguistic feature. Anthony is simply

comfortable within his sociocultural setting of his home. Knowing when it is appropriate to

speak that way and when it is not. I have found this to be true of other El Salvadorans as well.

The ones I work with, for example, I have noticed that their tone, volume, and definitely the rate

in which they speak change drastically when they are speaking within their in-group as opposed

to when they are speaking to the outgroup, who in this case are Americans. El Salvadorans are a

very high-contact culture, they enjoy giving hugs, kisses, dancing, talking! These would all be

examples of haptics of the El Salvadorans nonverbal communication. They arent afraid of

human connection and interaction, and that is something that is very refreshing. Especially for

saying I personally come from a culture in the U.S. where people would rather look at their

phones as opposed to looking directly at a person during conversation. For example, when I first

met Nellys brother, Rolando, he gave me a big hug and a kiss on my cheek. It wasnt weird at

all, it was very nice in fact. I felt very welcomed.

The thing about any Spanish-speaking person in the United States is that there are many

negative stigmas and stereotypes associated with the language. This inflexible stereotyping, or

mindless stereotyping, seems to happen a lot in the U.S. due to politics and the media, really.

This thought that all Spanish speaking individuals are Mexicans who are here illegally, and the

rigidness of that mindset is so incredibly biased. Any El Salvadoran will get extremely offended

if they are called Mexican, simply due to the stereotype and prejudice that goes along with

that word. This is true of that of Spaniards, Venezuelans, Cubans, Colombians, etc. Since
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learning this my eyes were open to the immense racism in the U.S., not that I wasnt aware of it

before, but now more than ever do I see it. The idea that the majority group, being Americans,

put Spanish-speaking citizens in the minority group in a negative light is terrible. It creates not

only racial profiling but also institutionalized racism. For example, I have worked in many

restaurants and typically the Spanish-speaking workers are either assigned in the kitchen or as a

busser. Never as a server, manager, or otherwise.

When speaking to Nelly about her initial experiences here in America she said that it was

scary. Which I found to be a little ironic considering the country she came from, however, this

goes to show that everyones personal expectations are different, and that sociocultural

adjustment is hard even if you are moving from a country that has much violence to a country

that does not. I explained to Nelly the Revised W-Shape Adjustment Model of culture shock

and here is what she told me about her own experience with culture shock

The honeymoon stage was not too exhilarating to Nelly as it is for some. She told me that

in El Salvador she lived with the side of her family that was wealthy, so moving to the United

States with her not-so-wealthy mother was less than glamorous. Nelly told me that she went

through the hostility stage really when she enrolled in high school here in the U.S. She wasnt

necessarily hostile, but she was emotional. She tells me that she was shy as a young sixteen

year old, she did not speak English, and she had enrolled in high school in 1971 right in the

middle of the hippie movement here in America. She said she thought the clothes and the long

hair/beards were scary to her, something she wasnt used to seeing in El Salvador. Nelly explains

that she didnt necessarily find anything humorous during the humorous stage of culture shock.

She says that as opposed to laughing at herself she simply accepted the difference between her

culture and Americas. After two years of being in America is when she finally began to feel at
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home, or in the in-sync adjustment stage. She was taking English classes and learning how to

speak English made her feel like she was no longer a part of the outgroup, rather beginning to

belong to the in-group. While Nelly has gone back to El Salvador to visit family, she never had

to necessarily go through the reentry culture shock stage or the resocialization stage simply

because she has never had to move back to El Salvador and readjust to life there.

V. Intercultural Relationships

Nelly tells me that her first two years here in America were the hardest. Between going

through culture shock and trying to assimilate, or blend in, with the larger culture she had a

rough time creating relationships, specifically intercultural relationships. It was easy for her to

gravitate towards people who were similar to her, just like the attraction theory states, that we

as humans are attracted to people or things that we can relate to or are similar to. When asking

Nelly about her conflict style she described it as more of an avoidance style. She says that she

doesnt like conflict, and that the older she gets the less important it is for her to argue with

others. However, when she was younger it was a different story. She was more forward, or

dominating. She wasnt afraid of being aggressive and voicing her opinion.

One very important intercultural relationship that she developed was with her current

husband, Rick. Nelly met Rick on a blind date in New York when she was only twenty-one.

Three years later and they were married, twelve years later they gave birth to their first born son,

Anthony, and only four years after they had a daughter, Catherine.

Rick is from Oklahoma, he is of Caucasian and Native American descent. Their relationship

is a primary example of an intercultural relationship. Rick is much quieter and keeps to himself,
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as is his family, while Nelly and her family are much more talkative and outgoing. But it has

worked for thirty-six years so they must be doing something right!

VI. Improving Intercultural Communication

If I have learned anything from interviewing Nelly and getting to experience life with her family,

it is that we should never judge a book by its cover. Just because someone is different does not

mean it is negative. Different is good! The first step to overcoming the racism I discussed earlier

on in my paper would be to recognize these biases, address them, and overcome them.
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Works Cited
Stella Ting-Toomey Wun Chu, Leeva Chung Lai Wah. Understanding Intercultural
Communication. 2012. 76-79.
Civil War in El Salvador. n.d.
Intl. Religious Freedom Report. 2005.
National Geographic. n.d. <