Spell it wrong.
There’s 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’ll never know the grief and insult the mistake caused.
Every Colombian can tell you a story about the ʻauthenticʼ menu item or ʻculturalʼ event missing an ʻo.’
Ask for cocaine.
Yes, there’s a huge amount of cocaine produced in Colombia. But the majority is sold and consumed outside of Colombia. Every Colombian has had someone ask if they carry any powder on them, though in my six months there, I never actually saw the stuff.
Be in a rush.
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. 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 the people with you en este momento are less valuable than the people you’re meeting despues?
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.
Say you love tacos and that you have a sombrero at home.
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.”
Colombians are proud of their culture, and it’s degrading to assign them someone else’s.
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 don’t say no!” For Colombians, itʼs not worth hurting someoneʼs feelings just because you donʼt feel like doing something. They’re 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 when I asked if an event or occurrence would take long (it almost always did anyway).
Start a conversation about Pablo Escobar.
Many Colombians do not want to be associated with someone considered 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 who were very directly affected are all tragic — and recent — memories.
Casually mentioning that I was near Escobarʼs unmarked vacation home earned me a world-class lecture on how he’s not a tourist attraction, he is an hijo de puta and no one should ever pay tribute to him, ever. 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.”
Be exclusive with friends.
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’re by default inviting the people they want to be around.
Colombians also tend to invite themselves, or friends, to your plans. In 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. It simply doesnʼt occur to them that maybe you wanted to travel alone or go run by yourself.
Talk / ask about Colombia as if it were a third-world country.
Itʼs not. 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. Are there areas that arenʼt “developed?” Yes. But, donʼt assume that because an area isn’t what you may consider “advanced” it’s not important.
Colombia has a huge amount of biodiversity, and much of it is protected. It’s intentional that trees still exist and animals 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.
Say you donʼt dance.
You do. Colombians are not afraid to move and 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 it can be intimidating to see a room full of suave movements, Colombians simply see that everyone else is dancing and know you’ll draw more attention by standing still.
If you really, truly donʼt dance, you have options. You can 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! Or, somehow ﬁnd alternative Colombian gatherings that donʼt have dancing, like business meetings and marathon running.
Refuse to help.
Colombians will do amazing favors for you. They will make 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 across town to my apartment. I’d be embarrassed to ask even my closest American friends for favors like this, let alone 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 new roomy apartment.
Call them the English version of their name.
Colombians hold their names sacred. They understand if you mispronounce it, that 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.