“Suavizar” is a great verb. It doesn’t mean to transform oneself into a suave, attractive man…at least not exclusively. In Spanish, it describes the process of smoothing over rough spots in behavior or conversations that would otherwise be difficult and awkward.

You wouldn’t toss around imperatives or mime the type of assistance you need in your home country. If you wanted whipped cream on your hot cocoa you’d probably do better than cupping your hand above your mug or saying in a helpless tone, “whipped cream…?”

Abroad, and especially in Buenos Aires, these missteps can be a matter of necessity. Thankfully, today’s class at InterSpanish focused on giving us the tools to smooth over and politely navigate rough situations in the city.

Imagine walking into a trendy restaurant and asking to use the bathroom without the vocabulary of tact and politeness. Or imagine asking a stranger if he can move to a different table so that you and your friends can all fit in a busy restaurant. Imagine you need to borrow a pen, a phone, or even a few coins to ride the bus from a stranger. I know from personal experience it can be easier to pretend nothing is wrong and walk the forty or fifty blocks home. This is not a long-term solution.

A smile and positive attitude can earn you forgiveness, but the next step in the process of mastering a foreign language is to know how not to break the rules of polite conversation in the first place. Here are a few very helpful principles to use:

  1. Use the conditional. Asking for favors and help from strangers can be bothersome. Using the conditional is a way to tread lightly and express yourself in a humble way. “¿Podrías ayudarme?” doesn’t make any impolite assumptions about what the other person will do.
  1. Offer an apology to start. This is a classic technique in any language that acknowledges the inconvenience you may be causing. Examples: “Perdoná que te moleste”, “Siento molestarte”, and “No quiero ser una molestia”.
  1. Appeal to your speaker’s positive self-image. It’s hard to ignore someone after she has already given you a compliment for your generosity. “¿Serías tan amable de traerme mis cosas de tu casa?”.
  1. Learn a few key phrases. The Argentines have been suavizando for ages with the following phrases: “¿Podrías hacerme un favor?” “¿Te puedo pedir un favor?” and, among friends, “¿Me das una mano?”.

With these points you should be as suave as you need in the city. And don’t forget to smile!