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The Meaning of Work in Buenos Aires, Argentina

June 10, 2009

In the land of lunfardo (Argentine slang), linguisitic history and play is quite rich and intricate. What always fascinates me though, are the expressions found in English vs. Spanish that mean the same thing, use totally different constructions, and to this humble author, clearly indicate how the two societies construct their identities and how individual’s in those societies construct their self-identities. (Yes, I’m getting into a discussion of semiotics, epistemology, signs, signifiers, structuralism, whatever you want to call it.)

In Argentina, if you say “Qué hacés?” that can literally be translated as “what do you do?” or “what are you doing?”, but more accurately means “what’s up?” or “how are you?” This phrase is ubiquitously used in Buenos Aires and the rest of Argentina as an informal greeting, and may even be the most common, even though we are never taught this phrase in Spanish class in the U.S.

What we are taught in Spanish 1 in the U.S. is cómo estás, qué tal, cómo te va, qué pasa, etc. These are all very reasonable substitutes but tangential to the point I’m making. So back to the point…

In the U.S., the greetings “how are you”, “what’s up”, “what’s going on” and so forth would be equivalent to the meaning of “qué hacés”. In English, however, the phrase “what do you do?” means “what is your occupation”, “how do you spend your time,” or “how do you make a living.” The question “what do you do?”, in English, however, translated back to Spanish is most accurately, “A qué te dedicas?” which only figuratively translated back to English would be constructed as “what do you do”. The literal meaning is more along the lines of “To what do you dedicate yourself” or “what are you dedicated to.” The verb, dedicar or dedicarse, means “to dedicate,” and

In the U.S., “what do you do” is perhaps the most common question to ask a new acquaintence at a party or gathering since in the U.S., a great deal of personal identity is based on one’s occupation. In fact, it is THE second question asked in almost every conversation one has with a new acquaintance. First you ask “what’s your name” or “where are you from,” then comes “what do you do”. In Argentina, however, this question, in a first conversation is never the second one and sometimes never discussed at all. The idea of what you do for a living is a much less important part of social identity.

Then comes the funny part to my wife, Lourdes, who is Argentine and has spent a lot of time in the U.S., especially at our wine tastings which are social gatherings. She says not only does everyone ask what she does, but they ask what her parents do. Fascinating.

Americans are clearly much more preoccupied with work than Argentines to the point that this actually is the reflected in syntax. The literal translation of what do you do does not work in Spanish with the same meaning and must, therefore, be construed as a cultural construct: Americans do and Argentines dedicate; a common greeting in the U.S. is an inquiry into a more personal subject in Argentina (or perhaps one that is simply less important?); the occupations of parents and relatives are discussed by Americans and not so much in Argentina.

Clearly, the functioning of our two societies can be seen in its most basic and common language.

And for those cunning linguists  out there, I have purposefully ignored the other translatin of the verb hacer which is “to make”, the implied ending of “what do you do (for a living)” in English, and the French translations for these phrases. This would have made for an e-novel.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Alan Crabtree permalink
    June 10, 2009 7:05 pm


    This is very interesting and I hope you write again on this theme. I’m looking forward to more observations, as someone who has enjoyed several visits to Argentina and BA.


  2. June 10, 2009 7:11 pm

    Thanks for your comment Alan!

    I will certainly be writing more on language as a social construct since I have lived and observed it so often. This is the most important reason I started the blog actually.


  3. June 13, 2009 9:39 pm

    I really like – que te cuentas?

    But, the most interesting thing to ask in either Spanish or English for me is: what are you interested in? That generates an interesting discussion and really throws a lot of USians off because they have to stop and thing about it because often it’s not their work.

  4. Benco permalink
    June 15, 2009 2:41 pm

    Interesting observations. In my experience the second question you get asked in Argentina, after “de donde sos”, is “y de que parte”. I always wondered why the exact part of the country I come from would be of interest, especially since most of the time they know little about my country in the first place.

    • June 15, 2009 3:48 pm

      Thanks for the comment Benco!

      I agree that there is a very high frequency of asking “de que parte” in Argentina that I think is due to a couple of things: the high interest on the part of Argentines in the U.S., because the U.S. is so big in comparison to Argentina, and because there is a tremendous influence of American media in Argentina with many geographical references: Beverly Hills 90210, Sex and the City, Boston Legal, etc.

      • carolina permalink
        June 22, 2009 9:17 pm

        I think we like to know, because there is a big difference if you are from Buenos Aires or if you are from the ‘interior’ of the country, I guess there is a different status. When you live in Bs As, you always have to ask in which Barrio, right?


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