Your own way to do thing might not be always the right–or the only correct–way to do something.

As a Costa Rican, I have to learn things like being on time, being more direct in my communication or just explaining our sense of humor to someone else.

Costa Rica is well-known for people’s friendliness and the Pura Vida lifestyle, and that is totally correct. Costa Ricans who work in the tourist sector has to get used to the cultural differences. In order to provide good service, they avoid doing cultural behaviors that can annoy our visitors.

Because of this, tourists who visit Costa Rica for short periods of time may not have time to experience or even notice some facts about Costa Rican culture.

But there are a few facts about Costa Rican culture that will be helpful for students, volunteers, missionaries or anyone who comes for a long period to understand the social dynamics of our country.

Breaking through cultural differences will help you to better respect the culture that you are exploring. So this applies to other cultures similar to ours—basically if you are traveling around Latin America.

Classic facts about Costa Rican culture:

1. The famous “Tico Time”

Running late is normal for Costa Ricans. You may have already heard about this or noticed it when visiting some other country. We often hear people from “X” culture are always late or people from “Y” are always on time.

But why? Well, let’s look from the perspective that is about more than being late, on time or early. It’s also about how people use the time in various places around the world.

Monochronic and Polychronic cultures

In the book The Silent Language (1959) Edward T Hall, an American anthropologist, and cross-cultural researcher coined the term “polychronic” (P-time) and “monochronic” (M-time) cultures.¹

P-time cultures include many countries in Africa, Latin America, and those bordering the Mediterranean. Individuals from P-time cultures operate many things at the same time and are more concerned about people and the present moment.

Cultures that operate on the M-time end of the time scale include most of the places in North America and Nothern Europe. These cultures organize their lives around time by relying on time-keeping, calendars, and cell phone reminders.

It’s easy now for me to understand the potential number of misunderstandings about the way to interact with these two different views of time.

One of the facts about Costa Rican culture definitely is that Polychronic orientation. Several examples come to my mind:

– Rodrigo was running late to guided a tour of British tourists and the first thing that one of them said was, “To be on time is to be late.” He tried his best to make the group happy again, but it was difficult.

– One day I committed to attend 3 appointments during the same day: a work appointment, coffee with my girlfriends and a conference at night…. guess how things went?

– When Ticos invite someone to an event, we have to write in the invitation that the event starts 30 minutes before it actually does so people will show up on time.

2. Ticos can’t say NO – Indirect communication

Costa Ricans have the tendency to always quedar bien (be on the good side with everyone).

In the book “The Ticos”², the author refers to the fact that Costa Ricans value peace and friendliness. This will drive Ticos to avoid conflict—raised voices are seldom heard, fights rarely seen and Ticos will nod or say “si” even when they don’t mean it simply to avoid disappointing the people or making trouble.

“NO” is a syllable that seems almost rude to us. Rather than hurt someone, we say one thing and do another.

I personal had struggle a lot with this because of personality but also growing up in this culture that reinforces conflict avoidance.

When I first started working with other cultures, I felt that they were rude, but now I see that maybe Tico culture wired me to see a different opinion as bad. Over time, I learned that thinking differently is Ok and brings an enrichment to our relationships.

A quick tip:

Ticos can be seen as polite but not sincere. Unfortunately, when you live here, you get used to that. But a good thing to do is clarify that you won’t be hurt if they say “no” to you. This will allow the person to give you an honest answer without the guilt of thinking that they are being rude.

The reality is that the social dynamics of our culture will require guessing and reading between the lines.

So use your best intuition skills to understand that maybe when someone says yes it’s only to be nice. Of course, this won’t be all the time but happens quite often.

The dark side: facts about Costa Rica culture

These first two facts about Costa Rican culture can be frustrating for visitors, but it’s usually an easier decision to go with the flow and accept them.

However, there is an attitude that lies in the High-Context culture, and it is not that easy to detect and understand. Even for me as a local, it has taken a while to understand and to explain this fact about Costa Rican culture to people from other cultures.

Basically, this fact is that we are a culture that is controlled by the fear of what others will say.

According to the book mentioned before:

“[Ticos] are quick to gossip about others, especially if they are different in some respect, but are afraid to become subjects of gossip.”

We get so used to this behavior and it becomes more evident in work environments.

After living in Costa Rica for a while, you may realize that you start to be extra careful with everything that you do. This can even happen to people who don’t usually care what other people think. When they face this cultural fact it can be frustrating to avoid it.

3. “Choteo”, “La Chota” – Mockery

There are two types of “Choteo” or mocking: the healthy one to joke and the one that is meant to keep people in line without confrontation.

When I was 8 years old in elementary school, I had just lived abroad for 2 years and then came back to Costa Rica. It took a while for me to understand the jokes.

Some of them sound innocent and friendly, others not so much. Well, I had to learn to live with “Choteo.” It ranges from friendly irony to rancorous attacks.

If Choteo is done with humor it might be appreciated by its targets. But it can also be mean and discourage ambition and imagination.

But there is also a passive-aggressive form of Choteo that wants to keep everyone on the same mediocre level. I like the example used in the “Tico Time”´s  article by Katherine Stanley³ that says:

 On several occasions, I’ve heard Costa Ricans compare this aspect of their culture to the famous analogy of the crabs in a bucket that pull down any fellow crab that starts to haul itself out.

So the primary purpose of choteo is to put the victim in a situation of vulnerability. It can hurt the person’s reputation or cause them to lose their prestige. This usually happens because their actions go against what the majority wants, as is the case of the strong criticism towards politicians.

This phenomenon has spread radically with the growth of social networks. An example of that is when we get news, everyone creates a meme and spreads it on social media to make fun of something in a sarcastic way.

This meme found in the social media, President Solis is asked about the “liquidity problem of the government?”, to which he answers “I ate it, also”.

In conclusion

I have enjoyed writing this article a lot. Researching has taught me a lot about my culture. Usually, you find the positive aspects of culture as a way to attract tourists and I guess you have to sell the country.

It’s not easy to “share the dirty laundry” (as we say in Spanish) of your country. At the same time, I know that if I visited a country, I would be interested in understanding the social dynamics. This doesn’t mean that facts about Costa Rican culture are all negative or that all this information applies to every single Tico.

It might be helpful to think of cultures like individual personalities. If you take a personality test, there is usually a section called “Strengths and Weaknesses.” Well, these 3 frustrating facts about Costa Rican culture can be a description of our weaknesses as a culture, but they represent our idiosyncrasy.

So I would hear your comments and thoughts on this. If you are coming to study or live here I hope this information can help you to understand interactions and save you some misunderstandings.

Finally, if you want to know more information, we would be happy to chat with you. We are here to help to write your roadmap when you experience Costa Rica in all the ways.

Read more about Costa Rica culture:

7 things you must understand about Costa Rican culture

Costa Rican people are very hospitable

References

  1.  Larry A. Samovar,Richard E. Porter,Edwin R. McDaniel: Intercultural Communication: A Reader,  page 313, 2012, third edition.

  2. Mavis Hiltunen Biesanz, Richard & Karen Biesanz Zubris Biesanz: The Ticos: Culture and Social Change in Costa Rica. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998.
  3. Katherine Stanley Obando: A room of our own: Costa Rican choteo and Virginia Woolf, The Tico Times. May 9, 2017.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Great Article! I have Visited Costa Rica several times for short periods of time and while it is true that I find these matters frustrating at times I also enjoy the diferences. Following Tico time is very enjoyable for me. Coming from a culture that is “go, go,go” and so time oriented I find it endearing to be able to take your time in the here and now and focus on the people you are currently with. Also, I love that Costa Rica is very peaceful but When I ask a question I genuinely want to get to know the people I am talking with. I want to develope relationships that are meaningful and will last an eternity. Therefore, I would really appreciate honesty when talking with my Costa Rican friends. Honestly when spoken in love hurts less than honestly spoken to be hurtful. For Americans it is all in the delivery but even still we can be misunderstood. I personally am notorious for “Sticking my foot in my mouth.” A saying in America that means saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Tactful honesty is a work in progress and has taking many years so far to master. I love everything I know about Costa Ricans and I want to continue to learn through shared experiences and truthful conversations. Thank you for this Article and the ability you have given us to reflect on it openly.

    • Thanks Carson for your comment ! I am glad that the article is achieving the goal to bring us to reflection about culture differences that because we are immerse in them we sometimes don’t even notice but we can learn from each other ! I have learn a lot about western cultures about being more direct like you mention saying the truth (with love) is better that no saying anything or lie just because you don’t want to hurt and that have been a challenge for me because in our culture that will be rude. Thanks for comming to Costa Rica with that open mind and willing to learn and create long term relationships 👏🏽

  2. I have lived in Costa Rica for 8 years and I struggle with the second thing you highlighted the most. Particularly understanding the mentality of “rather than hurt someone, we say one thing and do another.” Doesn’t that still hurt them, just later instead of now (when you don’t do what you said you would)? Is it really about not being there to feel bad about the hurt because you don’t see it when it happens?

    And this then damages your credibility because people know you don’t keep your word and never know if you mean what you say. Do Ticos just not mind having that reputation? I can tell you that it creates a lot of work for others to always have to have a contingency plan in case someone doesn’t come through.

    I have noticed that this point also makes it very difficult to resolve conflict because no one wants to talk directly about it. And if you do, you are the bad guy for shaming the person who has created conflict. This has backfired on me a couple of times now. I think I am trying to bring peace and maintain a healthy relationship by working through conflict and addressing it, and it just makes people angrier because they’d rather not talk about what happened and why. It seeks like there is a lot of sweeping the past under the rug and never mentioning it, but then relationships are damaged because people no longer trust others who have not done the work of reconciling with them. How should I go about this in the future?

    • Hi Andrea! Thanks for your comment! We agree with every word that you are saying. For the part about the reputation for not following through with something, it´s important to remember that saying yes is a cultural norm so Costa Rican´s wouldn’t ever consider it would hurt their reputation if they don’t follow through because that´s the normal way of interacting in Costa Rica. However, I can recognize as you mentioned about conflict resolution it´s pretty hard. Once I learned the difference and the weakness on my own culture, I found difficult to work through because I now want to call the attention when someone is avoiding conflict, but it isn’t always worth it because I end up exhausted and sometimes they won´t change because it is wired in our DNA.
      So my advice is when you are working with other cultures it’s important to have a lot of grace and patience, but also you can do as my friends from the US do. When we have a situation and people don’t want to talk about it we call the attention to the fact that we understand that is not comfortable and that by culture it sounds rude but that we still have the responsibility to work through it. Also, we remind people that having a difference of opinion doesn’t mean conflict.
      Andrea, also remember we are pleaser people so also make sure that you explain to Costa Ricans that you won’t take it personally or if you feel it won´t hurt your feelings mention it. They will feel safer to open up about their real thoughts about something if you mention this upfront. And if still they talk “behind your back” call the attention to that as well and say that hurts more than having them tell you the truth at first.
      There is not a perfect formula, but these tips have helped us who work in cross-cultural environments. Hope that works!

  3. The world is a colourful place and I loved reading about these idiosyncrasies. I’m British so I’m all to aware of our stereotype; stiff upper lip, don’t show emotion, like to queue (also polite) but as you say, not everyone fits these cultural differences. Great article!

    • Thank you Alex! Great to hear that you like it! I love my British friends we have so many cultural differences but that what makes a balance and a beautiful cultural exchange!!!! Hope you can visit Costa Rica and get your perspective or maybe one day we go to England 🙂

  4. Thank you for sharing about your culture. Honesty in sharing is difficult to find and wonderful to have – this might be at the bottom of the iceberg, something we all share? You sharing about your culture helps me better understand mine and see those things we all share.
    Choteo sounds like sarcasm, which is common in some parts of the united states. I think that many people in some places in the US say yes when they mean no, are afraid of what others think, and are like the crabs in a pot, keeping one from climbing out. Perhaps if we share honestly about ourselves and our cultures we will find that we are more alike than different? But in other places in the US the people are very direct, and usually these people think only about themselves and are greedy. We also have a lot of denial, it is very hard for people to share honestly. Thank you again for your honesty 🙂

    • Hey! Thanks a lot for the comment. You are right as human beings there are more things that make us similar and the cultural difference comes mostly from that freedom of think and does things differently but we cannot generalize and put everyone in one basket. So I reflect on things that I been told by outsiders and accept the ones that even when I don’t feel proud are there, like the ones that I mention in the post. I am glad that you like it and thank you so much for share your thoughts about your culture as well. Pura Vida!

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