Siestas by the sea and the importance of empathy

This summer, I briefly worked with the captain of ARC Almirante Padilla FM-51 during a multi-national exercise. During some town time, he told us that Colombia’s coastal cities, like his hometown of Cartagena, take mid-day siestas and businesses are often closed. Unfortunately, the Colombian navy does not siesta during lunch. The captain said sometimes this is frustrating when he wants to use his lunch break to run errands but all the local businesses are closed. He also pointed out that Colombia’s inland cities, like its capital Bogota, don’t siesta either.

ARC Padilla

ARC Padilla FM-51

Others asked the ship captain about Colombian food and the weather. No one asked about business communication practices. I don’t know how much value the Colombians place on e-mail communication, but is likely not as high as Americans. In Barry Thatcher’s (2010) essay “Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures,” he pointed out Colombia is the only Latin American country that considers e-mail as an “in-writing” agreement and only if the senders and receivers can be verified (p. 182).

This week’s readings in Rachel Spilka’s (2010) anthology Digital Literacy for Technical Communication reminded me of working with the Colombian captain for several reasons.

  • Bernadette Longo (2010) noted in her essay “Human + Machine Culture” that “people value human relations. We want to feel connected to other people” (p. 156). She also observed that “since the 1980s, our interactions with people have become more and more mediated by electronic devices” (p. 156). I am glad my colleagues and I took the opportunity to have a face-to-face conversation. After reading Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology & Less From Each Other, interpersonal communication skills are not something to take for granted.


  • Thatcher (2010) pointed out that Americans tend to assume the rest of the world operates the same way we do; however, many countries, especially Latin American ones, tend to value interpersonal values more than we do (pp. 170-171). Hearing that some countries still value siestas is a good reminder not to take everything so seriously.

I am glad my colleagues and I took the opportunity to learn more about Colombia because it added to my “empathy bank,” so to speak. Ann M. Blakeslee (2010) conducted case studies with five technical communicators for her essay “Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age.” She learned only half of the writers were actually able to communicate with their audiences to learn what their preferences are (p. 208). The other writers were prevented from having direct contact with their customers and only received second-hand information from other company employees (p. 208).

In addition to direct customer communication, the technical writers used personas, trouble call logs, and user reviews and feedback forums to perform audience analyses (Blakeslee, 2010, pp. 207-210). These practices also contribute to the overall empathy levels of the technical communicators Blakeslee (2010) surveyed. I think Steve Krug (2014), who wrote Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability said it best: “Empathy is virtually a professional requirement for usability work” (loc. 2,627).

So my goals this week are:

  1. Take opportunities to communicate face-to-face instead of through electronic means.
  2. Continue to use empathy in my decision making.
  3. Nap.

Posted on November 12, 2017, in Digital, Literacy, Social Media, Society, Technology, Workplace and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I like No. 3. Can I do that too? Very nice commentary and particularly insightful synthesis of the various readings with your personal experience.I am particularly heartened at adding the “human touch” after so many readings that strike me as absolutely giddy on the “virtual life”. You brought those aspects to life.

  2. Let me start by saying that I am 100% in support of naps. I will take that tradition and adapt it right into my day. On the point of human vs. electronically-mediated interactions, I have found that, while Skype, email, and teleconferencing help in long-distance collaboration, I am able to work more quickly and effectively with people whom I have met in person. Speaking with a person in real time and with visual cues also eliminates much of the guesswork regarding a person’s tone. Sometimes I observe myself and others “reading into” an email something that wasn’t intended, be it anger, sarcasm, or some other negative tone. This seems less likely when I have had a chance to interact with the person, even if we conduct some of our business electronically.

  3. Jennifer,

    Great post. Time-off between cultures can be extremely interesting and hard to get used to. I’ve never thought much about Siesta’s, but adapting must have been very interesting. I worked with teams in Norway and remember they were completely unavailable during July. It’s the one beautiful time of year so everyone just took off.

    The Philippines didn’t have anything big like Norway, but they do have about 27 national holidays. It felt like they were almost always taking a long weekend, and that didn’t even count their own PTO.

    I like how you set your goal # 1. I just had a moment like this last week. One of our PM’s had a question for me via email. I was about to respond, but I sit on the same floor as him so I decided to just walked over and had the conversation in person instead. I also got to catch up on how he’s adapting to Florida (he just moved here from Paris a little over a year ago). I feel like these are the things we might miss out on, especially when tons of people are usually CC-ed, it’s all work and no play.

  4. Great post! I do think more and more Americans [and others] expect responses within minutes while other cultures don’t feel the need to check their email more than once a day, if that!
    This semester I’ve been frustrated with colleagues who don’t ever respond to or acknowledge my emails. Unfortunately, given our teaching schedules, it’s next to impossible to find each other in the halls to talk face-to-face. Awareness of this and being overworked in general [particularly now that advisement day has happened and we’ve all had to add more student meetings to our office hours] leads to the empathy you mention [as well as the NEED FOR NAPS]. Luckily, we have a few days off next week to hit the reset button!

    Pass the gravy!

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