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.
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:
Larry A. Samovar,Richard E. Porter,Edwin R. McDaniel: Intercultural Communication: A Reader, page 313, 2012, third edition.
- Mavis Hiltunen Biesanz, Richard & Karen Biesanz Zubris Biesanz: The Ticos: Culture and Social Change in Costa Rica. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998.
- Katherine Stanley Obando: A room of our own: Costa Rican choteo and Virginia Woolf, The Tico Times. May 9, 2017.