HOW TO PISS OFF A COLOMBIAN
Note: I love Colombia. I am the first to defend it, and the first to say that not all Colombians are the same in any way, or agree on every issue. This is meant to read as an exaggerated, satirical article. It’s an opinion piece based on my observations, and my experiences, which, because they are mine, are not the same for everyone. This is not a research paper. Repeat, this is not a research paper.
Colombia is one of the most grossly misunderstood countries in the world. The stereotypes are endless, and the overdone jokes often have similar punch lines. Colombians have a good sense of humor, but certain punch lines may get you a real punch…in the face.
Colombians as a people are warm, fun, and do have a strong sense of humor that at times, by American standards at least, borders on inappropriate and even insensitive. But there are certain buttons that are too often pressed that will set off any self respecting Colombian. Their national identity is sacred. While Colombians are quite regionally inﬂuenced, once
outside of their country borders, they will stick together.
Here is an easy to follow to-not-do list on how to avoid confrontation and avoid the insulted “que rabon!”
1.Spell it wrong.
There is a difference between “Colombia” and “Columbia.” I did not live inside of a brand name sports jacket, I lived in South America. It is an insult to all Colombians to have a ʻuʼ instead of an ʻo.ʼ One Colombian friend sent an angry letter to a French consulate asking that their website link to “Columbia” be changed. While they did change it, I fear they will never know the grief and insult the mistake caused dear Laura.Every Colombian can tell you a story about the ʻauthenticʼ menu item or ʻculturalʼ event missing an ʻo.’ The correct ENGLISH spelling is “Colombia.” Get yourself a dictionary, and take it up with the editor.
2. Ask for cocaine.
Yes, there is a huge amount of cocaine produced in Colombia, this is an undeniable fact. But, another less emphasized undeniable fact, is that the majority of it is sold and consumed outside of Colombia. Every Colombian has had some insensitive person ask if they carry any powder on them. In my six months there, I never once saw cocaine. I also did not look for it- you can ﬁnd that stuff in USA suburbs just as easily as you can anywhere else- seek and you shall ﬁnd. Even if you are meeting someone in the basement of a shady nightclub and it took you 5 different guys to establish this contact, there is no reason to assume every Colombian has that kind of connection. Are there Colombians who do? Of course, just like there are Americans who donʼt have maps and Russians who are spies. That just doesnʼt mean itʼs true for the entire nationality, because Americans can also be spies, and Russians donʼt have to have maps either.
3. Be in a Rush
People are busy, ok. But Colombians see being in a rush as an attitude. Yes, go to meetings, yes schedule things, yes life moves fast, great. But don’t act like you always have somewhere else to be. Colombians take their time. For busy, time-is-money Americans, this is easily the most frustrating part of the culture- and also the most liberating. Daily life moves slow, and for Americans this can often feel like a waste of time. But Colombians wonʼt be rushed- they believe in quality and time is not an issue. A rushed attitude is insulting to those around you- are you suggesting that the people with you en este momento are less valuable than the people you are meeting despues? Itʼs acceptable to arrive late, but arrive and stay until you are done. Arrive prepared. Americans will arrive on time, starving and with mismatched shoes, but they were on time damnit it- whereas itʼs insulting to Colombians to arrive as anything but your best. You must be presentable, and once you arrive, you are here. You always have time to stop and say hi- itʼs much ruder to walk past someone hurriedly without a simple greeting than it is to arrive late. Itʼs a lesson everyone could use to an extent- be present.
4. Say you love tacos and that you have a sombrero at home.
Colombia is not Mexico, nor is it any where else- it is Colombia. People love to generalize about Spanish speaking countries. While Iʼve never heard anyone say New Zealand, Ireland and Canada share the same culture, I have literally heard people say “Mexico, Colombia, and Spain” are basically the “same.” (side note, if you recognize yourself as saying this statement, a lot of people think you are dumb). Colombians are proud of their own cultural symbols, and it is degrading to assign them the wrong ones. Imagine, if youʼre American, how fun it would be to have people constantly tell you they love maple leaves, the royal family, and maracas. The proper reaction would be along the lines of “….yeah, me too…I like scrabble, if weʼre playing the random game.”
5. Say “no”
Americans are taught to deal with rejection, whereas Colombians are taught to deal with doing things they donʼt want to do. When I refused to dance with someone at a cultural event, my horriﬁed friend simply said “you DONʼT say no!” Why not? Because in small situations, what harm does it do? So you donʼt want to dance with Jose, big deal. For Colombians, itʼs not worth hurting someoneʼs feeling just because you donʼt feel like it. They are trained, from birth, to be a good sport in undesired circumstances.
Donʼt agree to big things like marriage or home buying unless you want to, but for harmless things, Colombians play along. The only time I ever heard Colombians say “no” was if I asked if something would take long. It was almost frustrating when making plans- ʻdoes this sound fun?ʼ YES! ʻWill you come to the party?ʼ YES!ʼ It makes planning difﬁcult, but at least no one rejects you. Seventh grade me can only wish she had gone through her awkward stage in Colombia.
6. Talk about Pablo Escobar without invitation
Many Colombians do NOT want to be associated with someone that is a disgrace to their country.
Talking about him is tricky. For foreigners, you donʼt want to ignore the harm the drug lord caused, but you also donʼt want to bring it up. You need a zen balance of knowing about him, but not mentioning him. The pain Escobar caused Colombia, the violence he set off, and the innocent people that were very directly affected are all painful- and recent- memories.
Casually mentioning that I was near Escobarʼs unmarked vacation home earned me a world class lecture on how he is not a tourist attraction, he is a hijo de puta and no one should ever pay tribute to him, ever. Escobar not only gained control of major cities in Colombia, he would set off bombs continuously to make points and created a terrifying reign of violence. Also, donʼt ever say you “understand.” You may have read about it. You may have seen images. You may even remember news about it. But unless you were there, constantly afraid to both leave and stay inside of your home, you donʼt “understand.”
8. Be exclusive with friends
We have learned that Colombians would rather do something they donʼt want to do rather than make someone face rejection. For many cultures, with parties or events, you invite who you want to be there, and only those people arrive… for Colombians, you must not only invite the people you want, but also plan for them to bring the people they want. There will always be that friend with the obnoxious girlfriend or that girl that travels with a small swarm of people you donʼt like. Tough. Colombians are not exclusive, so if you invite them, you also by default invite people that they want to come. Colombians also tend to invite themselves, or friends, to your plans. To Americans, it comes off as imposing because we value our individuality, but to this culture that values community, itʼs rude to be exclusive. Inclusiveness is a trademark of Colombians, and to exclude someone is one of the biggest insults (P.S., they are not the best secret keepers). It simply doesnʼt occur to them that maybe you wanted to travel alone or go run by yourself. On the plus side, Colombians learn politeness towards people they didnʼt chose to be around, a very transferable skill. On the down side, good luck planning the right amount of food for a supposedly private dinner party.
9. Talk/ask about Colombia as if it were a third world country*
Itʼs not. Please see note at end of paragraph. It is a recently developed country, sometimes known as a developing economy. Bogota is one of the most important capitals in South America, and Colombia has both cell phones and refrigerators.
Does it have areas that arenʼt “developed?” Yes. But, donʼt assume because an area is not what you may considered “advanced” that it is not important. Colombia has a huge amount of bio-diversity, and much of it is actually protected. It is intentional that trees still exist and animals can live in their natural habitats. What you may call “developed” may, by others, be called “harmful” or “ruined.” You might live on a beach and sleep in a hammock or you might live in a modern apartment, all within Colombia. So donʼt ask if people ride donkeys to work or use coffee beans as currency, because it’s not representative of the entire country. According to the GINI index, Colombia has the biggest income gap between classes. It is literally, in the Western hemisphere, the country with the biggest wealth income inequality. One person’s vision of Colombia might be drastically different from someone with entirely different experiences. Just don’t assume any one view represents the whole country- people generally talk about what they know, and what they see.
*I put an extra love note for everyone upset about this. “Third world country” is a definition, not a perspective. Feel free to look up the UN, World Bank, EU, OAS, IMF, or any other international organization’s lists of third world countries. If Colombia is on there, I will gladly amend my opinion piece, and I will graciously thank you for correcting me. However, I know it is not on there because I have read those lists multiple times and it is of extreme interest to me. There are different kinds of lists, like third world based on democracy or human rights, but the basic list of third world countries does not host Colombia. Here is one list, according to the IMF, but please, I invite you to look up all lists, and I am very open to changing my blog if something has changed.
10. Say you donʼt dance
You do. Colombians are people that are not afraid to move, and not afraid to express themselves. If you say you donʼt dance, be warned: you have just given every Colombian in the room the challenge to prove that you do, indeed, dance. “Como asi que no bailas! Venga!” While to outsiders, we think itʼs intimating to see a room of suave movements, to Colombians they see it as everyone else is dancing, and you draw more attention to yourself by standing still. If you really, truly, donʼt dance, than you have options. A, spend a large portion of time in the bathroom, reﬁll your glass (though if
itʼs with Aguardiente, I promise you will dance eventually), and pretend to run after spotted celebrities: Omg! Was that Juanes? GO! B, somehow ﬁnd alternative Colombian gatherings that donʼt have dancing, like business meetings and marathon running. Or, C- if you donʼt dance, embrace it. Be funny on the dance ﬂoor. Make ridiculous your trademark, as I do, because the point is, after all, to have fun.
11. Refuse to help
Colombians will do amazing favors for you. Truly, they will makes calls and search connections and look at every possible solution to help you with something that has absolutely no beneﬁt for them. When locked out of my apartment one day, a friend of my roommate offered to have a friend drive to his place, get the extra key, and bring it over across town to my apartment. I would be embarrassed to ask even my closest American friends not only for favors but to ask other people for favors on my behalf!
Colombians though, will volunteer themselves and others without hesitation. They donʼt expect compensation-to them this is normal. But they do expect you to help them when they need it. So they will selflessly help you move- but they might also ask if visiting relatives
can stay at your roomy apartment.
12. Call them the English version of their name
Colombians adore their names. But their spelled and pronounced name as shown on their formal documents and birth certificates. I will honestly say, I still don’t understand what is the big deal here. Colombians hold their names sacred. When I taught in a Colombian school, as my international team was presenting, there were 22 hands in air. After 5 translations of names, we said “any questions that are NOT ‘what is my name in______”? …and every eager hand went down. They just wanted to know- they didn’t write it down, or use it, nothing. They just wanted to know, and I don’t get it. Colombians are very proud of their full names. They understand if you miss pronounce it, not all languages are gifted with rolling tongues, but at least try and don’t use the translated version. Don’t call ‘Andres’ ‘Andrew’, ‘Antonio ‘Anthony,’ or ‘Alejandra’ ‘Alexandra.’ Don’t even use the mispronounced version, like an English ‘Laura’ for Spanish ‘Laura’ or English ‘Felipe’ for Spanish ‘Felipe.’ I love when people say my name with different accents, so I simply don’t understand why it matters, but you’ve been warned.
Thank you for all the response to this article! This is an opinion piece that started with stories between friends. Repeat, opinion piece. I do not pretend to know everything, I’m just saying what I’ve noticed. This is a tiny blog, not a news source. I read every single comment, and appreciate the feedback. Para la gente Colombiana….gracias por todos los comentarios! Yo jamas quise dar entender que toda la gente actua de cierta forma, solo hablo de lo que vivi yo y reconozco que me falta toda una vida entera para aprender mas sobre esta cultura. Yo amo Colombia y estara en mi corazon para siempre <3