Cultural Tips and Taboos in Latin America

by | Feb 17, 2022 | Global | 1 comment

Figuring out the trains, planes, and bus routes of international travel can sometimes be frustrating and confusing. It can leave you pining away for the days of car travel with a good old-fashioned, tattered road map. But there’s another aspect of foreign travel that can be equally—if not more—challenging: navigating the cultural landscape. The problem is, you rarely know that you’ve violated some taboo until you’ve crossed that invisible border. There is a world of offenses you might commit. Let’s stick to Latin America (Asia is a whole other story) and, at least for now, focus on showing respect and concepts of time and space.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T in Latin America (And Elsewhere)

Showing respect for the people and country you are visiting—or living in—is Culture Basics 101, right? Well, sort of. But you don’t have to Bieberfy (See: Justin Bieber Drops His Pants at Mayan Ruins and It Does Not Go Well) a situation to show a lack of respect.

The price of photo ops Nischal Masand
The price of photo ops by Nischal Masand

Respect for any culture (or lack thereof), Latin America or elsewhere, can be shown by the clothing you wear on the streets— or not wearing appropriate clothing when you visit a sacred site or entering a church.

It can be as simple as taking photographs of indigenous people without asking their permission. Maybe you cannot communicate with them in their language, but smiles, hand gestures, and simple courtesy can speak volumes.

And those ladies in Peru wearing colorful traditional clothing, caressing llamas? They expect to get paid for those photos; for better or worse, it’s how many of them earn a living.

Disrespect, on the other hand, can be as subtle as making repeated comments about “this is how we do things back home.” These comments often have the insidious subtitle, “The way we do things is so much better or more efficient.”  Or morally superior. Unfortunately, this is an attitude that comes into play in numerous Latin American cities when foreigners encounter garbage in the streets, refuse in the waterways, and residents that think nothing of throwing their plastic bottles on the ground.

This is not to rationalize this behavior—but keep in mind that Americans’ attitude toward littering and recycling has evolved from decades of “Keep America Beautiful.” Efforts are being made, but educating people and changing decades-old habits takes time.

Bursting the Bubble

So you want to get up close and personal with the local residents? Well, keep in mind that just how close you get has a strong cultural component.

Different "spatial bubbles" Catherine Zaidova
Different “spatial bubbles” by Catherine Zaidova

As a general rule, North Americans are most comfortable standing around 3-4 feet away when involved in casual conversation. It’s our way of protecting our “spatial bubble.” More intimate relationships are typically indicated when people stand between 0 to 1.5 feet from one another.

People in Latin America need and expect less personal space than we do, and will often stand as close as 1.5 feet—or even closer. Be prepared for people who will bump into you without saying “excuse me,” and ignore that hallowed bubble when you are on public transportation, standing in line at the grocery store, or maneuvering your way down a busy street.

Time Lapses Differently in Latin America

So you finally receive that long-awaited invitation to a party thrown by one of your new Latin American friends. To show your appreciation for the invite and to relish every moment, you plan on getting there at the very moment it was supposed to start. Wrong.

In fact, it might even be perceived as rude since likely as not, your hosts won’t be ready for you. Plan on coming ½ to 1 hour after the starting time. It’s all part of the “mañana culture,” which has loosely been defined as “anytime between tomorrow and never.” Mañana literally means either morning or tomorrow. That ought to give you some clue.

In other words, promptness is not a concept that holds plenty of weight in Latin American culture (keep in mind that it depends to some extent on the context, business meetings often being a notable exception).

You have two choices: You can fume while tapping your toe and staring at your watch as you wait for your friend to arrive. Or you can ask your anal-retentive self to take a breather. I humbly suggest the latter.

Do you have any cultural tips for Latin America? Inadvertently violated a taboo? Please share them with the rest of us.

by: Eileen Brill-Wagner