Learn Spanish, Living

Spanish and the Art of Managing Disappointment

Exploring a tidy arrangement of words in Spanish usage that most usually leads to the listener’s disappointment

Spanish Pinpointed

In a related article, we highlighted two little words which are commonly heard by those living in Mexico—No Hay. Related to, although subtly distinct from, ‘no hay’ are four more words to add to your sonar’s range: lo que pasa es que…

Translated literally, the words say “what happens is that…,” although in Mexico this arrangement of words is frequently used to begin sentences that must inevitably end in the listener’s disappointment.

The concepts of ‘no’ and ‘can’t’ do not rest comfortably in the realms of polite conversation and friendly interaction of Mexican social and business culture and so to avoid being off-hand, Mexicans (and foreign natives who have assimilated Mexican culture) can often be overheard using the now ubiquitous “lo que pasa es que” at or near the start of sentences which require a pretext to soften the blow of the unfavorable response about to be conveyed.

Although it’s possible to perceive the words as nothing more than short shrift intended to assuage the consequences of poor form in the undertaking of some deed or promise, that would be technically inaccurate when taken in the broader context of Mexican culture, and especially when you have been in Mexico long enough to understand some of the primary reasons which can bring about no hay.

The words may be applied to your circumstance in almost any given situation. You might be going to pick-up your dry cleaning on the day it’s due; or visiting a coffee shop to meet someone who doesn’t show up; you might be ordering your favorite dish from a restaurant’s menu, or calling to inquire why your cable TV signal has unexpectedly vanished. It seems most often heard in an assortment of bureaucratic environments, when you attend a place to receive some authorization, certificate, or thing vital to progress your endeavors.

Whatever the situation, when a sentence directed towards you contains the words “lo que pasa es que…,” you need to immediately adjust your expectations and understand that however eloquent, plausible, compelling —or otherwise— the reasons about to be explained to you are, the answer will be a form ‘no,’ or no hay.

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  1. Mariana Kramer says

    So true.

  2. B.Buckman says

    ‘Lo que pasa es que…’ is a prelude to disappointment, as the article points out. It covers a world of topics: it didn’t work, it’s not finished, it won’t work, it will be delivered tomorrow, the price has gone up, the truck broke down, it won’t dry in time, it can’t be done and I can’t come back until next month.

    If you are lucky enough to fine a good serviceperson treat them like royalty. My wife has hot coffee and a sweet roll ready for the person who comes to help me with the garden. Get a phone number, address if possible, and the name of their first born. With a little effort one might reduce the number of the ‘Lo que pasa es que…’ explanations.

    • Colette Pepperell says

      You are a very engaging writer!

      It is the same down here in Ecuador with the “Lo que pasa es que”. We learned that the hard way and now we follow your advice such as getting names, phone numbers, offering coffee or cakes etc etc…takes some effort, but worth it!

      Colette and Philip

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