We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.

In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:

A primer on how to avoid mistakes in Chile

Although modern in many ways, Chile remains basically traditional. You will do far better if you do not openly denigrate or flout those traditions. People speak in conversational tones. Unlike other countries in Latin America, the Chilean police force is admired for its honesty and competence. Report any complaints to the police the moment you receive them, including criminal activity. Bribing is not acceptable in Chile in contrast to the rest of Latin America, and you will likely get arrested if you attempt it. Also, Chilean police’s association with the military is specially strong, so some police members might react rudely if they feel threatened in any way; always attempt to be at least basically polite.

chile culture photo

Photo by Lucy Nieto

Do not assume that your hosts in Chile will have a low opinion of Pinochet. May be a surprise, but his government still has many supporters (specifically because of the economic success of the regime), so be careful when raising the issue. Even if you want to talk other political subjects than Pinochet, people still can get very opinionated and even raise their tone when it comes to politics. Depending on your opinions, they can either call you “communist” or “fascist”. Some Chileans can be friendly and helpful. Many will be willing to assist you with directions or advice in the street.

One of the problems in accepting such assistance is “chamullo” – similar to “bullshit” in English – when people will offer advice on matters in which they have no knowledge, but wish to appear to be helpful. Be careful: many people can speak and understand English, French, Italian or German, be polite. Though Chileans are regarded by their neighbors as arrogant, they tend to disdain displays of arrogance from foreigners. Humility will normally get you more assistance than arrogance.

Chileans will know that you are a foreigner no matter how good your Spanish is, in part because Chilean Spanish is so filled with uniquely Chilean characteristics (which can make it hard to understand for other Spanish speakers). Don’t get upset if they call you “gringo” – most foreigners are called that, it’s not meant to be offensive. If you are of black race or dark skinned, you might be called “negro” in a friendly way. This is by no means similar to the n-word. Most Chileans are not (openly) racist, but unlike other South American countries, nearly every person of African heritage is a foreigner. Besides, “negro” is a common nickname for dark-skinned people. (Negro is the Spanish word for black). Between 1879-1883 Chile fought a war against Peru and Bolivia over what is today the country’s northern territory.

Chile won against both countries but lost a portion of Patagonia since Argentina threatened to attack. Many years later, the Chilean people feel bitter about losing terrain in the south and proud over annexing what is today northern Chile. Bolivia still claims to get back that area, or at least, an “exit to the ocean” which has angered many Chileans and some express racist comments towards guest workers and illegal immigrants

from Peru and Bolivia. On the other hand, there are also many Chileans who do not find any wrong in reaching an agreement with Bolivia and grant them access to the ocean. Ask as many questions as you want, but be careful with phrases like “Peru or Bolivia has the right to the northern territory”; these will be a sure way to get in trouble. A few Chileans of German heritage (mostly in the south) are rather proud of having some “German” in their DNA, even though they may have surnames like Gomez and Ramirez. It is largely a myth that speaking German has any real utility in Chile. Chile has also a 500.000-strong Palestinian community (even when it’s estimated that less than 1% actually speaks Arabic), so be careful when expressing Zionist or Pro-Israel viewpoints, there might be a Palestinian-Chilean that feels offended.

If you are an Israeli: be aware that Israelis are not necessarily openly welcomed by a large segment of the Chilean population for the reason stated above, though tourism operators will disguise and downplay this sentiment. Former Israeli reservists in particular are widely regarded as rude and have a well founded reputation for failing to pay for use of services and for not following national park safety rules. This is not only in southern Chile (particularly in Patagonia) but throughout the country. After the enormous environmental damage from the 2011-2012 forest fire in Torres del Paine , the Israeli government paid millions of dollars to Chile in attempts to soften the growing anti-Israeli backlash.

With this, you had the primer on key facts about Chile, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Chile food and drinks:

Local food you should try in Chile and No miss drinks in Chile.

Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Chile? Please comment below.