Tuesday, January 21, 2014

You Know You’re Not in Kansas Anymore When...

article from December 13, 2011
by Julie R Butler

Everything is different in Latin America. It seems like this statement would be glaringly obvious, yet it is not so obvious to those who are picking a future retirement location out of the glossy magazines that are more about selling a dream than about culturally educating their readers. Building construction is different. The smells are different. People eat strange meals at odd hours of the day. Businesses close for several hours during the middle of the day. Life passes by according to an entirely different time schedule (or none at all). And people behave differently.

My theory is that the reasons for these differences are sunk deep in history, in the turbulent interaction of cultures that reaches back hundreds of years farther than the history of the United States does and involves epic conquests of a sophisticated matrix of civilizations that were not a part of the story in the northern reaches of the Americas. The result is that, throughout Latin America, there are several characteristics that many who come to live here are surprised to discover, often finding themselves annoyed and offended to have to deal with them. Here are a few:

The future

Time is not the essence of Latin America. It is regarded in a completely different way. When someone says that something will happen “mañana,” they do not necessarily mean “the day that follows today.” It is a multipurpose word, like “aloha” in Hawaiian. It may mean “tomorrow,” but it may also mean “morning,” and you have to specify “mañana por la mañana” if you want to say “tomorrow morning.” Most often, it means “not today, but sometime in the future.”

Likewise, “quince días,” which translates literally into “fifteen days,” may signify roughly two weeks from now, but usually it means sometime further into the future or “check back in a few weeks.”

A desire to please

It seems to be a matter of politeness to answer “sí” when presented with a yes or no question, regardless of what the answer really is. Example: “Does this road go through?” “Sí.” One hour later, you will enjoy waving at everyone for the second time as you make your way back from where the road ends at the edge of a major river – sans bridge. Asking “Is this the way to San Gerardo” is not the best method of finding your way to San Gerardo. Alternatively, asking for directions will get you directions to somewhere or other, but not necessarily to San Gerardo. Since you wanted directions, you will get directions.

If you ask if something can be done, again, the question is likely to be answered in the affirmative. And you can probably guess what “I’ll call you” usually entails. I believe it is all due to the strange custom that it is better to disappoint someone in the future than to do it face to face. The future is so uncertain, after all.

Personal space?

Ideas about “personal space” are different, as in there is no such concept in many places in Latin America. People will crowd you in lines and at the gym.

Another aspect of this is the way that you will find people gathered together or walking together at a leisurely pace blocking everything from the grocery store aisles to the roads, and whatever important appointment you are rushing to will just have to wait.

And then there is noise. One person’s noise is everyone’s noise. If it is a major holiday, there will be mortars and firecrackers. If it is a wedding or a birthday, there will be loud music and laughter. If you are in the countryside, it will be barking dogs and crowing roosters. If you are in the city, there will be car horns honking. You will either get used to it or you won’t.

Customer service?

I often read about how there is no such thing as customer service in Latin America, but I think this impression is not quite right. I believe that the issue is that ideas about courtesy are different.

As I mentioned before, people prefer to answer questions in the affirmative and tend to say that things are possible when they are not. Businesses owners who are out of stock of an item will tell you that they will be getting more in “quince días,” but knowing that the distribution system is not that reliable should tell you that it will either arrive sometime in the future or it won’t. You may think you have an item on hold, even having put a down payment on it, but if someone walks in with the cash on hand to purchase it, you will have to make other arrangements.

There is no “business as usual,” as people from the States and other more fast-paced and prompt countries are familiar with. But do not think that what these shopkeepers and businesspeople are doing is meant to be rude or spiteful. They are just different cultural habits.

The same goes for waiters at restaurants. Instead of constantly sweeping by to see if you would like yet another beer, the waiters in Latin America generally take a hands-off approach. I have come to suspect that they are specially trained in eye contact avoidance, as you often have to gesture wildly to get their attention. Most incomprehensible is the matter of the check. They are not interested in turning tables over. The system doesn’t work that way. Rather, diners are expected to linger and talk over a cup of coffee after the meal is finished. There is a time for everything, but mealtime is not the time for rushing. That activity is reserved for speeding from one stoplight to the next.

My humble advice

It is easy to get paranoid when you are learning to live your life in a foreign culture, when you think that everyone is out to take advantage of you. And there are, indeed, many who will charge the “gringo tax” or otherwise try to take advantage of those who don’t speak the language or appear to be able to afford it or seem to be out of their element – all because they can.

My advice: Always be respectful. Do your best to learn the language and use it at least when greeting people before politely excusing yourself for not speaking their language well.

Be observant of how the locals behave. Particularly if you are outside of a big city, don’t be shy about greeting whoever you meet, even just walking down the sidewalk, if that is what others tend to do. In the major cities, you will find people to be more guarded. Then again, you may find yourself in a café or restaurant where people are on more friendly terms with each other. Join in the spirit – you might end up engaged in a pleasant conversation with the people at the next table who are interested to know if you are enjoying your time in their country.

Above all, try not to take things personally. The disregard for time, the blowing you off, the noisy neighbors, the inattentive waiters, even the gringo tax and the attempts to take advantage of your naivety about the ways of their country... none of this is aimed at you personally. Some of these habits are cultural mindsets that you will just have to get used to, otherwise you will be perpetually bent out of shape. And in most cases, the tendency to try to take advantage is a trait that is extended to anyone whose vulnerabilities make for an opportunity. I guess it is kind of like asking for a discount on the price of something; if you don’t ask, you won’t get it.

Life is different on the other side of the rainbow. It certainly isn’t Kansas anymore.

[Photo of Rainbow at Iguazu Falls by Julie R Butler]

Julie R Butler is a writer, journalist, editor, and author of several books, including Nine Months in Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info). She is a contributor to Speakout at Truthout.org, and her current blog is Connectively Speaking.
email: julierbutler [at] yahoo [dot] com, Twitter: @JulieRButler