Colombia has many jewels in its crown. It is a land of rainforests, coffee plantations, pristine beaches and bustling, vibrant metropolises. It’s greatest asset however, is the Colombians themselves. Who are the people of this culturally rich and ethnically diverse country? And more importantly, how can I break the ice, interact and connect with them while I’m there?
On the publication of our new Culture Smart! guide to Colombia (get a 25% discount here!) below are 5 tips on how to meet and greet the locals on their terms:
- Social Class and Status
Colombian society, though incredibly diverse, is highly stratified. Your position in society is determined by your ancestry, family name, the colour of your skin, and your income. The rich upper class stick together and the rules of entry into it are strict. Wealth alone is not enough to buy you entry. Neighbourhoods in Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali are divided into official estratos, which reflects their socioeconomic class. The cities’ poorest live in estrato 1, and the wealthiest in estrato 6. For a Bogotano the estrato they live in will determine many things, including who they will interact with on a daily basis.
Colombians take outward appearances seriously. How you look signals your position in society. Colombians like to stay current with the latest fashion trends, and they spend as much on their clothes as the Italians and the French. Physical features also play a big role. In Colombia urbanites are sporty and active, and those in the middle and upper classes will often put in the work to stay in shape. So take note—physical appearance is important!
All interactions in Colombia start with a formal greeting, which are important and expected. They start with a greeting relevant to the time of day—muy buenos días (very good morning), buenas tardes (good afternoon), or buenas noches (good evening). They should be followed with inquiries about the person’s family, their health, and the general state of things. Greetings and small talk are very important in Colombian society. If you launch into the business at hand without the customary formalities you will be seen as uncultured and rude. The physical aspects of Colombian greetings also adhere to certain traditions. Men greet each other with a firm handshake and, once better acquainted, an abrazo, a loose hug with a pat on the shoulder. Men greet women with either a handshake or one kiss on the right cheek, usually an “air kiss” in which lips never touch the cheek. Women greet other women with the “air kiss,” often accompanied by an “arm clutch,” which starts the same way as a handshake, but the palms pass each other and clutch the forearm instead of the hand. In all cases, direct eye contact is important.
- The Importance of Titles
Colombian Spanish is full of formalities based on tradition and social hierarchy. People address each other with formal titles that indicate social class, education, and respect. Señor and Señora are always safe introductions, but if addressing professional counterparts it is better to use a more specific title that refers to their professional accomplishments and status. Using Don or Doña before someone’s first name indicates respect and acknowledges their seniority with affection. Highly skilled artisans, furniture makers, construction workers, and head workmen are maestro.
- Invitation Home
Once you have been introduced you will certainly be invited to someone’s home, as people entertain frequently. Upper-class Colombians do this in an “old world style,” proper and elegant, following the rules of high society. Entertaining for the middle class is not as formal or elegant as for their social superiors, depending largely on the type of event and the finances of the hosts. Often a dinner party will be a more casual affair—friends getting together, a buffet dinner. Among the working and lower classes, entertaining is not always possible due to financial hardship. Sometimes it does not go beyond an invitation to the family dinner. To be a well-mannered guest bring the host a gift—a bottle of wine, flowers, or chocolates are all appropriate. As already mentioned, Colombians like to dress well and dress up. If a hostess says “casual” she means you don’t have to come in a suit, not that you should wear jeans and tennis shoes. In Bogotá, people wear stylish but conservative clothes. They should never be revealing: an outfit that breaks this rule will raise eyebrows. When going to a Colombian home you should err on the dressy side.
For more tips and essential information on Colombia, its people and their culture, pick up a copy of the new Culture Smart! guide to Colombia here! Use promo code NEWCS25 until the end of May for a 25% discount.
Culture Smart! Colombia: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture
Page count: 168
Dimensions: 171 x 108 x 13mm
Published at: £7.99 / $11.99 / CAN $15.99