Latin America is known for its openness. A classic example you hear from anyone who spends a longer amount of time in the region is the, “someone we just met took us into their home, fed us, cleaned us up, treated us like family” scenario. For many of us who come from the cold weather/cold people areas of the world, this is a very welcome change. Here are some of the things I have encountered during my time spent in Latin America, and how it has changed me.
Sharing is Caring
I have been surprised on countless occasions by people I hardly know or have just met sharing with me what I would consider to be very private information. Like a situation that I encountered myself in recently: in a 30 second conversation with a woman I barely met over three years ago, she managed to cram in both that her dad had died in the past year and that she’d had 2 recent miscarriages. Whoa! Now, I know miscarriages are more common than we hear about, but precisely because we usually don’t hear about them, especially from people we hardly know (and in 30 second conversation situations)! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had conversations with people and, due to my imperfect comprehension of Spanish, find myself smiling, nodding, and thinking “she did not just say what I think she just said…” only to find out later, oh yes, yes she did. It’s not a rare occurrence to share in Latin America, especially among women. You might be a little taken aback at first at the matter-of-fact way that people talk about things that seem a) extremely personal, b) fraught with emotion (sad, awful, horrific), or c) just stuff that non-Latin Americans would discuss with a frequency of rarely to never, but you get used to it.
Another funny example is the lack of political correctness, especially in small towns or communities. Now, coming from a place where political correctness is almost an end in itself, it can be disconcerting to go somewhere where it’s almost non-existent. Here are some examples I have heard recently: “where’s your fat friend?” or “tell that Chinese girl to come here” or “you’re looking awful today” or “I met a guy who was an Arab”. Now, none of these examples were said with the intention of being hurtful, comments about race or personal appearance are used more as descriptive terms.
Non-Existent Personal Boundaries
Personal space and boundaries are much less important in Latin America, and in certain situations you might find they don’t exist at all. When we give surf lessons on the beach here in Costa Rica, it’s not uncommon for people to come up and just watch. Now that doesn’t sound like much, but keep in mind they are 2 feet away from you, just watching, with their hands on their hips and curiosity on their faces, (something that would pretty much never happen in Canada or the States). Sometimes I notice that it makes our clients nervous, one client asked me “do they like us, or does that look mean they’re going to try to shank us later on?” I told him no, it simply means that they are curious as to what we are doing. In this case, the people actually ended up asking if they could take a picture with our clients, which surprised them but was a very good ice-breaker, (this communication reassured our clients that these people were friendly and curious, not ominous).
But forfeiting your personal space and boundaries isn’t the only thing you can expect to go down, you will also be subjected to people forfeiting theirs near or beside you. Be prepared to encounter a whole host of situations that you would not expect to find yourself in, such as being right beside a couple making out in the most random and public of places (on the bus, outside the grocery store), or even more shocking, “doing it” a mere 20 feet away from you in the ocean (and probably at the worst possible moment, like when you are giving a surf lesson to a group of very young girls). Maybe these people live with their parents and in public is the only place they can be “alone” — I don’t know, and I have spent endless amounts of time speculating. The motto here is clearly quite clearly, “have no shame”.
Some Other Funny Examples
It’s funny how in every culture, people seem to be concerned about what others think of them, though what constitutes as “good” and “bad” behavior, (and thus what people will either praise or diss you for), varies from region to region. In Latin America, people are much more concerned about outward appearances. But some of the stuff that people in Latin America seem to consider normal would be such “no nos” in Canada/the U.S. For example, think of a time you wanted to take a picture of someone, because they were funny looking or different or just plain interesting, to show your friends and/or put up on [social media site of your preference]. Now probably, when you go to take that picture, you are stealthy, perhaps pretending to take a picture of a friend when you’re really taking a picture of Exhibit A. Well, there’s no need for a ruse in Latin America though, if someone wants to take a picture of you, (even if they’re a mere 6 feet away from you and aware that you know what they are doing), they will just get up in your business and do it — it happened to me last week.
Another common example is when people play their music really loud on their personal music listening devices. It can happen while walking (or biking) down the street, at the store, in the middle of a movie in an actual theater… it doesn’t matter. It is completely normal for someone to blast their [sometimes odd choice of] music, without worrying too much about what people around them opine.
How Latin America Has Changed Me
While there’s no denying that there are some strong cultural differences between Latin America and other Western, English-speaking regions, it can be such an interesting and fulfilling experience to be out of one’s cultural element. There’s something so refreshing about just going for it and being open… not worrying that people are going to judge you or think you are nuts. It might lead to some harmless gossip, but you will probably hear about it (and to your face — how refreshing!) Honestly, I think we (those of us who aren’t privileged to be from Latin America) take the personal space/boundaries thing way too far; we are all so important in our own little worlds but at the end of the day, we’re all just human, living together in this little space.
Personally, I would say that Latin American openness has definitely rubbed off on me. It’s funny, once over that hump of “holy crap, I don’t know how to react to this” you find yourself doing the very things that once totally weirded you out. I now tell people, sometimes near-perfect strangers, stuff that I would have hardly even told my close friends back home before. But the biggest thing is being open about your feelings… telling people how you feel and not being ashamed to do so! I now tell everyone that I love them, something that I used to find somewhat difficult to do (I’m not the most lovey person). But the fact is that Latin Americans are notoriously more open, passionate, full of love and life… and it’s hard to not get into it once you arrive. The real risk is how your friends/family members will react when you take your newfound tendencies back home!