Being in Chile during the summer vacation period provided an opportunity for Carol and me to achieve a long-term goal of visiting Patagonia. We traveled by car in order to appreciate landscape variations, meet a variety of people and experience the unexpected episodes that often accompany road trips. Our first day of car travel in Argentine Patagonia was bracketed by two fathers interacting admirably with their daughters. Observing these men reminded me that strong family commitment is a vital social adhesive shared across Latin cultures.
At breakfast in Bariloche, Carol and I independently noted a father’s focused interaction with his daughter, who appeared to be five or six years old. It seemed that every bit of the man’s energy and attention were dedicated to their discussion of dinosaurs. He possessed the calm, deep voice of a respected personality during the Golden Age of Radio, and a demeanor that, if more commonly practiced, would make society a gentler place. Later in the day, as curvy mountain roads became straight, lonely stretches, I reflected on that fully-engaged father, the power of interpersonal communication, and my own efforts to balance bread-winning and career development with fatherhood and being a tolerable spouse. Sometimes we students of mediated communication give short shrift to the face-to-face variety, a tendency that is exacerbated by rapid developments in communication technology. I could not imagine any form of communication being more beneficial or enjoyable for that little girl than her father sitting directly in front of her, dedicating his full attention to their conversation. This led to some reflexive inquiry as I tried to recollect similar scenarios with my own two sons. Although they enjoyed halcyon upbringings, much of our time together was punctuated by intervening contextual elements such as sports, music, homework, Boy Scout activities and video games. (Here I imagine some readers nodding in recognition.) If and when our grandchildren arrive, I have prior experience as well as an Argentine archetype to help guide me.
We met the second father at the end of the day, through an unfortunate situation that resulted in our becoming friends. Upon our arrival in Sarmiento,* a small city in South Central Argentina, Carol and I struggled a bit to find our hotel—part of the problem was linguistic: when asking for directions we failed to replace the double L sound, pronounced ‘yuh’ in most of Latin America, with ‘sh,’ the Argentine custom. (We were off the GPS grid, navigating via large scale road maps and directions from locals, part of the aforementioned openness to unexpected developments.) Once we got the pronunciation and landmarks sorted out, we arrived to our hotel. The proprietor’s face dropped as I asked to check in—Pablo didn’t have record of a reservation, or a room available. I opened the email message I had received confirming the reservation; it had been sent nearly two months prior by a former employee who failed to record it in the hotel’s reservation system. Normally other options would be available, but it was Saturday night on a weekend when Sarmiento was hosting a regional Festival de Doma y Folklore (rodeo). As Pablo called other hotels, hosterías and even family friends, Carol’s and my prospects darkened. Our interaction transpired under the observant eye of Pablo’s daughter Agostina, age 11. Her presence probably inhibited a negative turn in Pablo’s and my communication as the unwelcome likelihood of the norteamericanos spending the night in their compact rental car increased (I’m 6’4” tall). Clearly, with Agostina present Pablo had more to lose than a night’s sleep if he admitted defeat and kicked us to the curb.
A resolution came in the form of a double mattress that Pablo and his wife prepared in a storeroom while we ate dinner. Carol and I were grateful for the bed, and the empathy that had provided it. In the morning, as he served us breakfast, Pablo explained that he had learned something important from the previous night’s experience: the longer I had remained calm, the less likely it became that our problem would escalate to a blowout. (My storming out of the hotel would have resolved Pablo’s dilemma, but not ours). I responded that I too had gained new awareness, and appreciated the positive behavior he had exhibited in front of Agostina. Our exchange reminded me that through mindful interpersonal communication humans can sometimes resolve problems that become more intractable when confronted collectively, or when presented and addressed through mediated communication. Conflict outcomes could improve if individuals imagined a sweet, curious 11-year old observing their demeanor in stressful situations.
* Named for the seventh president of Argentina, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811-1888), who was also a political activist, intellectual and writer.
This connection between effective parenting and thoughtful communication was reinforced by friends who we met at our destination in southern Chile, Torres del Paine National Park. Over the years Jon, from a family of four boys, had shared amusing anecdotes about being father to three girls – learning to play with Barbie dolls, developing a sense for feminine fashion, managing boyfriends, etcetera. Observing both parents interact so tenderly with their 16-year-old daughter was inspirational, and revealed subtle qualities of Jon’s and Sue’s characters that nearly four decades of friendship hadn’t shown before.
Carol and I passed through Sarmiento again on our return journey north, spent the night in a guest room in Pablo’s hotel, and reinforced what we hope will become an enduring relationship.