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 Colombia

Colombians are acutely aware of their country’s bad reputation, and tactless remarks about the history of violence might earn you a snide remark (likely regarding your country of origin) and an abrupt end to the conversation. However, Colombians eventually become willing to discuss these topics once they feel comfortable enough with someone.

Colombia culture photo

Photo by mckaysavage

 

Colombians are more formal than much of Latin America. Make a point to say “please” (“Por favor” or “Hágame el favor”) and “thank you” (“muchas gracias”) for anything, to anyone. When addressed, the proper response is “¿Señora?” or “¿Señor?” In parts of the country (especially Boyacá) Colombians can be formal to the point of anachronism, calling strangers “Su merced” (your Mercy!) in place of usted. The one (much) more informal part of the country is along the Caribbean coast, where referring to people just as “chico” can be more the norm—but take your cues from those around you.

Race is not a hot issue in Colombia, since whites, criollos, and mestizos (mixed race) blend naturally with natives and Afro-Colombians in everyday life (education, living, politics, marriage). Differences between white foreigners are not dwelled upon: expect to be called “gringo” even if you are, say, Russian. Unless context includes anger, it’s not meant to be offensive. If you are black, you will probably be referred to as “negro” or “moreno,” which also are not considered at all offensive.

Asians are usually called “chino” (Chinese), regardless of actual background. Confusingly, Colombians also occasionally refer to children as chinos (“kids”); this use comes from Chibcha, an indigenous language. Even more confusingly, Colombians refer to blondes and redheads as “monos” (monkeys). It sounds offensive, but actually ranges from neutral to affectionate. Colombians have the mannerism of pointing to objects with their chins; pointing to a person or even an object with your finger can be considered rude. Avoid indicating a person’s height using your hand palm down, as this is considered reserved for animals or inanimate objects.

If you must, use your palm facing sidewards with the bottom of the hand expressing the height. Colombians dance a lot. Anyone will be glad to teach you how to dance, and they will not expect you to do it correctly, since they have been practicing every weekend for most of their lives. Colombian night life centers mostly on dancing, and bars where people sit or stand are less common outside major cities. Despite the sensual movements, dancing is normally not intended as flirtation.

Here you could find salsa being danced at a children’s “piñata” party, or even at parties for older people. North Americans and Europeans could find this odd or confusing because of the use of salsa and Latin rhythms in their countries. A Colombian dancing innocently could be misinterpreted, and in general, Colombian women or men are not “easy” just because of the way they dance. It is applied in the same way as in Brazil—an almost-naked “garota” dancing samba in the carnival is not inviting you to have sex with her but inviting you to enjoy, to be happy, to join in the celebration, to join the exuberant shedding of inhibitions.

Regarding religion, most Colombians are Catholic, and it´s important to them to keep certain ceremonies and respect for all things related to religion. You could visit great architectural churches, even going inside, but taking pictures may be considered disrespectful during a mass celebration. Young people are more open to learning about other religions and debate on this subject, and you may even find a lot of them who may consider themselves as lapsed, non-practicing Catholics or even non-religious.

Colombia culture photo

Photo by mckaysavage

Gay and lesbian travelers Most Colombians are Catholic, although you’ll find that young people are increasingly quite relaxed about religion, especially with regards to social issues, atheism and agnosticism also is growing through younger colombians. Public displays of affection are rare, though, and may elicit uncomfortable stares.

Verbal and physical homophobic violence is not necessarily unheard of, and unfortunately less aggressive homophobia may be more widespread than what politeness masks. Overall, Colombian attitudes to homosexuality are pretty similar to what you find in the United States. You can find more liberally-minded areas (at least about LGBT issues) in Bogotá’s Chapinero district.

It is home to what may be the biggest LGBT community in Colombia, and is the focal point of the community’s nightlife in Bogotá (if not the whole country), with explicitly gay-friendly establishments such as Theatron (arguably one of the biggest discos in South America) . LGBT pride parades also take place in some of the major cities sometime around late June and early July. Colombia has approved same-sex civil unions, but efforts to legalize gay marriage have failed.

With this, you had the primer on key facts about Colombia, 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 Colombia food and drinks:

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

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