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Culture —– I Need a Pair of Pants!

by Brandi

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December 20th, 2010

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While I first lived in Latin America, I found out that there were tailors (people who custom make clothes) that work out of their homes. Many of them would be found in lower-income areas (small pueblos), and worked full time in their career as a tailor and would support their whole family by selling clothes that they made. Their work/office area generally consisted of the front room of their small adobe homes with a dirt floor and a sewing machine located in the middle of the room. Since there were so many frequent power outages, they usually had an old-style treadle sewing machine which required moving the foot pedal up and down to make the machine work; no electricity was required.

I had always figured that the sewing machines were antiques that had been passed down from relatives that had deceased. Until I was in some larger cities, I passed by a few stores that actually sold the “old-style” treadle sewing machines as brand-new models. As mentioned previously, the “treadle” style was necessary for the small pueblo areas that had frequent power loss.

I had an interesting incident once with a tailor (“sastre” in Spanish). Once, I went into a tailor’s home/shop with a Spanish speaking friend who inquired about a new suit for me. The tailor gave him the price and it sounded very practical for a complete suit — especially for one that was going to be custom-made. I then asked about a pair of pants (“un par de pantalones”) and was very surprised at the high price. I tried my “I’m an American, don’t give me such a high price” line (discussed in a previous newsletter) but he was set on the price. I could not comprehend how, for a pair of pants, he could charge almost as much as a suit.

We argued back and forth for about 10 minutes or so about how pants should cost a lot less than a suit because the suit includes the pants, uses much less material, and would take a lot less time to make, but he would not budge on his price. He thought I was off my rocker. Finally, after we were both very frustrated with the situation, it dawned on me what was really going on. In English, or at least in the U.S., when we say “a pair of pants”, we are referring to ONE “pants” (I have never been able to figure out why we put an “s” on the end of the word “pants” if there is only one of them). In that region of Latin America, if you want one “pant”, you say “I would like a pant'” (Me gustaría un pantalón). The word “pants” would mean more than one and in turn, a “pair of pants” would mean to them “four pants” instead of “one”. IT IS NO WONDER HE WANTED TO CHARGE SO MUCH MONEY! I was asking him for the price of four “pairs of” pants!! I then asked him how much just a “pant” (“un pantalón”) was and he gave me a great price.

From this lesson, I hope you can see that cultural and language differences may cause some frustration. In a conversation, two people may think they are talking about the same thing but may actually be talking about two entirely different things. My suggestion is to be patient in communicating and try to learn something new from each conversation you have.

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