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13 Things Americans Could Learn From Colombians

by Monica Corredor Sanchez Apr 13, 2016

1. How to start a dance party at any time and any place

We Colombians love to dance, it’s a huge part of our culture and most of us have a natural talent for it. We believe rhythm is in the blood of every woman. Some boys may have technique issues at first but for sure their mothers, older sisters or aunts will teach them how to dance properly before they become a teenager.

Typical American parties are for drinking and eating, but rarely dancing, whereas Colombians certainly know how to have fun dancing anywhere and everywhere. It’s not unusual to find a Colombian birthday party, family reunion, barbecue or even an innocent visit with a friend, turning into a dance floor. Salsa, merengue, reggaeton, vallenato (folk music from the coast, played with an accordion) — we’ll basically dance to anything that encourages movement. Colombians are experts in making up parties, even for no particular reason. We definitely don’t need to be at a disco to stand up and move our bodies.

2. The importance of the family unit

One of the main pillars of Colombian culture is family. It is extremely important for us to share time together. Every special occasion, and I mean all of them — baptisms, first communions, birthdays, graduations, New Year’s Eve, among others — will include family as part of the celebration.

Moreover, it is normal for us to live with our parents even into our 30s. We don’t feel the “obligation,” like Americans, to leave home at 18 — unless we decide to study in another city. This is not a symbol of us being lazy or slack workers, it’s a symbol of companionship and family union.

3. How to just laugh it off

Colombians are experts at creating jokes out of difficulties, problems, mistakes or flaws. It’s so common for us to rely on our humor when we’re struggling with a challenge. Actually, we have a pretty straight-forward, shared saying of Le sacamos chiste a todo — we make a joke of everything.

I remember when some colleagues and I were dismissed from work. It was initially a challenging situation, but later it just became the perfect excuse to laugh at our circumstances and tease each other with black humor and irony. Politics, scandals, news and our idiosyncrasy are also a great source of memes and jokes which hype on social media, among friends and family, TV shows and theater plays. It is not that we don’t take things seriously. Problems concern us deeply, but we make life easier and happier in difficult times.

4. How to be open and accepting of outside cultures

Americans seem to be commonly centered on their own country and are rarely aware of what is happening outside of the US. Education and media coverage usually spotlight events within the US, English-speaking countries or nations directly involved in conflicts with North America. This may be what’s influencing some Americans to be apathetic toward outside cultures.

In Colombia, we understand the richness that multiculturalism entails. We embrace foreigners because they teach us new things and make us more open-minded about customs we may or may not share. Even just teaching Spanish is something fun that Colombians do with love and respect. Colombians are very patient and polite when someone is speaking our language with an accent or using funny words. On the other side, Americans can be very critical of people with a strong accent, even making fun of them, which can be very frustrating for someone who had to overcome their fear to practice a new language.

5. The importance of being bilingual

Americans feel so comfortable with the fact that so many other people have learned English, that they may not feel compelled to learn another language. English is extremely important and thanks to this language I have been able to communicate with travelers and natives from around the world, but it’s not the only language.

Bilingualism is very important for Colombians and today, learning English is more of an obligation than a choice. It’s essential in order to grow professionally and search for better opportunities. Many schools teach the language to children from a very young age and most universities demand a certain level of it in order to graduate. Schools are increasingly improving in this area, even including a third language such as French or Mandarin Chinese in their curriculum. Learning other languages encourages socialization. It builds rapport with other nationalities and makes traveling easier and our brains healthier.

6. How to flirt and date the traditional, yet respectful, way

Colombian men know how to enchant women. They may not be widely known for their looks, like Italians, but they absolutely have the best pitch to entertain women. They are humorous, attentive, and they know how to give a compliment. Dancing is also one of their seduction weapons — it’s a highly valued partner asset for Colombian women. When it comes to paying the bill on a first date, a Colombian man will rarely let the woman pay for anything. (She may offer to pay part of the bill as a courtesy, but she will expect the man to refuse the offer.) Americans seem to be more reserved in dating, and they might be totally indifferent when the woman offers to pay.

7. How to stop with the stereotyping

Although people, in general, tend to stereotype Colombia, Americans make it more evident. In the past, lots of Americans have teased me about drugs and Pablo Escobar just because I am Colombian. Not every Colombian is a drug dealer and most of us have never met anyone remotely related to Escobar. Moreover, drug consumption in Colombia is low compared to Europe and the US.

Hollywood has been a big culprit in all this stereotyping. It’s unbelievable how films like Mr. and Ms. Smith have depicted Bogota so different from reality. It’s shown in that movie as a city in the middle of dense vegetation, filmed in a cantina with a fan hanging on the wall. People are wearing light clothes. It clearly doesn’t match the 14°C annual average temperature of the city. Colombians are very aware of the country’s violence and drug-trafficking background and we’re open to talking about it in a more respectful and relaxed atmosphere, but if people make jokes about drugs, we will be very offended.

8. How to respect motherhood

The role of Colombian women has changed a lot in the last few decades. Now, women hold executive positions and spend more time at work. However, most Colombian women are still completely family-oriented. Therefore, spending time with their children is still extremely important to them. To respect that, maternity leave is longer than it is in the US. Currently, Colombian mothers get 14 weeks and it could be extended up to 24 weeks if approved by law. Unlike in the United States, Colombian moms are not used to taking their little babies and toddlers to a daycare. Generally, the grandmother or a nanny, who is usually someone who has worked with the family for a long time, will take care of the little ones at home. It is not rare to find moms who leave their jobs to stay with their children for longer.

9. How to take a real lunch break

Grabbing a sandwich alone while staring at your computer is not exactly the Colombian concept of lunch time. In Colombia there is always time to have a break from work, relax and enjoy your lunch. Our breaks are usually at least an hour-and-a-half long and they represent a time for employees to stop their daily activities, sit down together, chat and share a meal. And lunch is our main meal of the day, it typically consists of some sort of soup, homemade rice, potatoes, plantains, salads made with fresh vegetables, and stewed or grilled meat, chicken or fish depending on the region.

Restaurants near workspaces always sell homemade menus for people on their midday breaks, and no one gets fast food unless it’s a weekend or they have some kind of sporadic craving.

10. How to show love for tourists

Nothing makes a Colombian happier than having the opportunity to welcome a foreigner to our country — no matter if they are family, a friend, an acquaintance or a total stranger. We always have a smile, we give a warm welcome, we offer a tip or some advice and we try to show them that we are willing to teach them about the best of Colombia. I cannot explain how proud we feel when tourists say positive things about our landscapes, culture, people or even our beautiful women.

11. How to actually get a vacation right

Vacations for Colombians mean leisure, rest, relaxation and a break from work. Back in the United States though, I saw countless Americans answering emails, coordinating meetings, having conference calls and actually working during their vacations. What? Taking advantage of technology in order to work remotely is great, I guess, but Colombians have a strict definition of ‘vacation’ — it means zero connection to work.

12. How to preserve the nutrients in fruits and vegetables

Everywhere in Colombia, a bar, a restaurant or any Colombian house, will offer a delicious, fresh juice made of natural fruit. Going out and having lots of drinks to choose from, including fruit blends, is typical. We are really lucky to have so many fruits, varying by region — Níspero, Tamarindo, and Borojó — they’re all great for jugo. Sodas are just a small portion of the menu. And “pink lemonade” (made with zero lemons) and “apple juice” (which tastes nothing like apples) are never an option.

13. How to nurture tradition and spirituality, especially around Christmas

Christmas for Colombians is not just a special date. It is time for sharing with friends and family, keeping its religious and spiritual meaning. The celebration starts on December 7th, with something that we call ‘Velitas.’ We commemorate the Virgin Mary by lighting up candles on the streets outside the houses. Then, from December 16th on for nine consecutive days, we celebrate ‘Novenas’ when we pray around a nativity scene and sing Christmas songs. During the ‘Novenas’ friends and family gather together, offering typical Christmas food like buñuelos (fried corn flour balls with cheese) and Natilla (similar to a pudding with blackberry sweet on top).

As usual, this is time for sharing with your closest people and perfecting your excuse to have a party. The celebration continues until New Year’s Eve. Fun, lucky omens are part of this celebration. It is very common to see people running around the block at midnight with suitcases, believing this will allow them to travel in the coming year. Also, we eat 12 grapes and wear yellow underwear as a sign of wealth and prosperity. True or not, Colombians know how to make this season fun and enjoyable, yet keeping up its spiritual tradition instead of the American commercial-oriented approach.

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