* TSST *

“Tsst” : onomatopoeia  //  Catcall. Wolf-whistle. Favoured in Spanish and Latino regions.

Until recently I had always been under the impression that tsst is a common sound in the vocabulary of Spanish and Latino guys.

In my understanding when making the sound at a stranger you come across as a randy, needling mammal with hopes of wooing or at least making eye contact with a woman in passing.

Man see woman. Man like what man see. Man want woman attention. Man puff chest – a primal compulsion.

*Tsst* *Tsst*

Walk down a street in Mexico or Spain, pass an idle man leaning against a pole taking a cigarette break and you’ll be sure to attract a bit of redundant verbal attention.

If you are of Scandinavian or Aryan genetic make-up then you can expect a more enthusiastic approach normally followed-through with “rubia” and/or “guapa”.

Tsst has to be one of my FAVOURITE uses of onomatopoeia in any given language.

(Well I guess it’s only Spanish language isn’t it? Other languages surely have their own equivalent sound, which carries the same meaning, right? Unless this sexist jab doesn’t exist?)

I mean the sound of a taser on heat shooting in my direction does nothing but arouse the senses.



I’m all yours muchacho.

Take me!


Though it wasn’t until after a particular encounter in Cuba that my cultural assumption was turned on its head.

*    *    *

So here I am one afternoon in Havana sitting down eating an egg roll.

Just minding my own business.

Enveloped in an egg roll.

When there it is:

That sound.

A mini sonic boom in close proximity.


Only a chair away, my internal radar tells me.

Far too close for my liking.

Especially when I’m stationary in my seat.

On foot it is simple to step up a gear, avoid eye contact and walk on.

This was not the case.

My eyes mentally roll to the back of my head; I do my best to ignore the bait.

But of course, it pesters, it persists.


Taking a pause from eating I look up expecting to see some lascivious man ogling over his chair… toothy grin… cheesy smile.

But no…

To my surprise there is… a girl.

She even appears similar in age to me.

She’s leaning on the edge of her seat bobbing her head like a pigeon spouting, “Tsst-tsst. Tsst”.

“Well, what the hell?” I thought. “So girls do it to girls too? What on earth does she possibly want? She also wants to buy me a mojito at La Florida for God’s sake?”

“Hey chica, I’m selling yoghurt. Do you want to buy some?”

She proceeds to present me with small tubs of yoghurt from her backpack, which certainly could not have not been refrigerated in recent times.

Many Cubans have a little side service of sorts to make extra cash; this girl’s was selling yoghurt it seemed. Or she may have identified me as a tourist and tried to come up with a spur-of-the-moment way to capitalise on that. Who knows? #communistrealities

I gave her a gracious, “No gracias,” and returned to the egg roll, reassuring myself the eggs weren’t off.

*    *    *

I was left bemused asking, “Have I jumped to conclusions here?”
Living in Spain five years ago is when tsst first came into my life. It didn’t take long to predict vino, porro, siesta and tsst would be usual suspects of student life. Indeed they were. Repeat tsst offenders were construction workers, who would act like theatrical thespians, as if your femininity was bowling them over – masters of macho cheese.

However, in Cuba the noise is prolific – it’s not just construction workers getting involved.

Why is that?

I tried to connect some dots and come up with a rationale… So, there is next to no Internet, well it exists but is painstakingly slow aside from being super expensive, so no downloadable pornography? Though I wonder if some contraband copies of Playboy ever made it into Cuba? I’d like to think so…

I’d always supposed tsst is a means to get a woman’s attention, laced with sexual implications. A means used first and fore mostly, or rather only, by men. Yet on this instance I was coping the sexist sound in one ear, then looking to be faced with a girl my age. Would I make that sound to another girl to get her attention?

Definitely not.

So, here we are met with the culture card. As an Australian, no I would not make that sound. Instead I’d say “hey”, “oi” or “excuse me”. But, had I have grown up in a place where everybody around me was going tsst to ask someone for a lighter or street directions, well yeah, I probably would be making that bug-zapping sound too because that’s the way I would’ve expected and accepted things to be. And had I have been exposed to this way of communicating since day dot I guess I wouldn’t see it as sexist or degrading either – everyone would be doing it.

Since my Havana encounter I associate tsst as part of Latino lingo. It’s a sound engrained in their language; similar to how the French make all those funny sounds, which aren’t official words, though carry enough meaning to construct an entire conversation.

And you know I’m sure the whole tsst usage is contextual as well; the dynamics between families, friends and locals would surely have their own unwritten code of meaning. I’m definitely not going to discount the likelihood of sleazy insinuation though. It makes sense that as a foreigner you’re going to garner more attention – you’re exotic and striking.

The difference now after analysing it is I’m more open-minded about the sound and less inclined to hastily get all feminist and tut-tutting. Now I’ve experienced men tssting me, but I’ve also had a girl doing it too. Most likely the guys who tsst me are angling for some lady attention and end up coming across a bit creepy however, I’m not going to condemn them all as uncivilised sexists. It’s just a matter of culture and their social upbringing. I don’t think they tsst with intentions to denigrate women; they simply aren’t conscious that it comes across that way to some.

I love travelling for the chance it gives you to get a feel for and analyse cultures in your own anthropological sense. I get so much joy out of discovering little quirks and idiosyncrasies within language and people. The more I travel the more I shake my head at how politically correct Australia is. When did everything become so serious? So much to the point where every moment seems fit for someone to straddle his or her self-righteous high horse and pontificate about how you should or should not be living, breathing, eating, speaking, tweeting and posting. People get so caught up in it that they become judgmental scrutinisers then take offence to mild, inadvertent situations.

I guess I prefer to consider exactly where language comes from, bearing in mind different cultural perspectives carry different meanings, which are easily lost in translation. So in future, I’m not going to jump to assumptions when someone tssts me in Latin America. For all I know there could be a little old grandma after my attention.

Calle Neptuno, just down from my casa particular

One Comment

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  1. Your work is really publication worthy as you write so succinctly with meaning and purpose. Love your work.

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