Expat Argentina

The Meaning of Work in Buenos Aires, Argentina


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.