It was an innocent enough question. A thoughtful Canadian who has mastered Spanish and is planning an extended trip to Costa Rica, a country he’s briefly visited but doesn’t profoundly “know,” expressed interest in Costa Rican culture and wondered whether anyone might offer a ten commandment-style guide on how not to offend Ticos during his stay.

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That which ensued was a vigorous and at times heated four-day discussion in the Costa Rican Living Discussion forum that begged wider elaboration.

The dilemma is compelling, the inquiry rather brave. Ours is a push-me-pull-you age that celebrates the fact that “I am unique” while at the same time insisting that “we are all the same.” The emphasis is on diversity, the ethic is tolerance, the setting, global.

We are hyperaware of the implications of our international interpersonal encounters as we wander ever more far afoot in a contemporary world that we realize has been structured by cross-cultural misunderstandings, historical interethnic disdain, and a staggering variety of local and national faux pas. Casual travel nowadays entails personal and geopolitical responsibility.

Jack and Jill on holiday have become little ambassadors with the diplomatic task of, at the very least, not making things worse. And not only that, Jack and Jill in part construct their identity on being the kind of good global citizens who seek to not trod over other peoples’ identity. Sounds exhausting, doesn’t it?

Well it doesn’t have to be if we all just use a bit of common sense, which nowadays also needs to be defined. So, let’s say that operating from a “common sense” perspective involves accepting these basic assumptions:

  1. There is such thing as culture, basically shared values, practices, and rituals, that propagates itself through a variety of institutions (home, school, workplace);
  2. Individuals are different and unique, and for every dominant cultural trait or value, every single member of that culture will at some point do, think, or say something that directly contradicts that dominant cultural trait or value;
  3. Generalizations can sometimes be useful in understanding situations and helpful in guiding behavior; and
  4. Generalizations can be taken so far that they become an impediment to understanding and prompt offensive behavior. With that said, we’ve weeded through the essence of much of the controversy in our Discussion Forum so let’s get on to the substance.

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The responses to the Canadian inquiry about insights into Costa Rican culture can be distilled as follows, with an added dose of malarkey from the author’s more than three decades of contact with this country, including a nearly twenty-year-long-and-counting marriage to a native-born Costa Rican, and three U.S.-Costa Rican children educated in local public schools both in the United States and in Costa Rica. The result is not the Ten Commandments, but rather:

Five Thoughts to Keep in Mind about Costa Rican Culture.

1. Appearance is important, very important, not as in the frosting-on-the-cake important, but rather as in the pan-that-determines-what-cake-is-made important. It is a central axis around which much of Costa Rican society revolves. Decorum, courtesy, good manners, personal hygiene, clothing-reacquaint yourself with the iron, it is an institution here-the cleanliness of your car, the neatness of your house, these things matter to Costa Ricans and will be used by them to try to discern precisely who you are.

If you want to know how something should be done in Costa Rica, or how something might be received by Costa Ricans, run it though an appearance analysis. If it enhances the general or particular state of decorum, fine, if it doesn’t, accept the consequences.

The implications of the appearance principle are hard to overestimate. It underlies so much, from the general avoidance of conflict in all interpersonal encounters to the eagerness of people to say things they know not to be true-sure it can be done that way, of course I’ll be able to start first thing tomorrow morning, you must come by and have coffee soon, I’ll call you-in order to save face, either yours or theirs.

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The appearance principle is why the main vehicle for retribution is passive rather than active. To cause a scandal, a public commotion, be it as seemingly minor as a public voice raising at a loved one, is verboten.

Several years ago a youngish Hollywood buck who came to fame on a very popular weekly U.S. situation comedy owned a nice house in Nosara. One day he was sitting having coffee outside a local soda near the “bus station” storefront. As he sipped his coffee, the incoming bus from San JosÈ arrived, disgorged its passengers, and sat, idling, waiting to be boarded by passengers for Nicoya or the capital.

For several minutes the bus sat, sending unpleasant fumes the star’s way. This annoyed Mr. Hollywood. Muttering soon turned to shouting, then, in a fury, he leaped up, grabbed a nearby chair and smashed the bus windshield. Now, effective as this may be at making some kind of point, it is no way to win friends and admirers in Costa Rica. Were a Costa Rican to become similarly offended, his or her most extreme reaction would likely be to get up and quietly leave the area.

At its most practical level, the appearance principle means that you should warmly greet all Tico friends and acquaintances you happen to meet-as should your children, even if they are teenagers-ask permission each time you enter a Tico home-as should your children, even if they are teenagers (come on, young Costa Ricans seem to manage these niceties and still be “cool”)-and check when you are in doubt what might be proper attire, even though you will inevitably be caught out of form at some point.

For example, despite changing times, neither men nor women are allowed to wear shorts, even long-cut, cargo shorts, when visiting Costa Rican public schools, prisons, or attending a performance at the National Theater, although women may, of course, wear miniskirts.

2. “Tico time” is precisely why you came here. “Tico time,” the supposed tendency of Costa Ricans to show up late or not at all to meetings, appointments and other commitments was one topic that elicited considerable discussion among forum participants.

Some discussants complained that such behavior reflected a disturbing disregard for the foreigner. Others pointed out that time has not yet become “money” in this society, and therefore there’s more of it to go around, thus the general disregard for tardiness. I agree.

Time, like beautiful children and spectacular countryside, is one thing that Costa Ricans have always had-at least until very recently-in abundance. Each moment is an end rather than a means. This, combined with the all-encompassing appearance principle, makes for a different kind of time ethic.

Thus, for example, official group events, such as parent-teacher assemblies, civic events, and council meetings, tend to start promptly at the assigned hour, and most attendees show up on time. Not to do so would be to cause inconvenience to others, and thus involve losing face. Plus, the rationale for these public events is widely understood and accepted.

So many factors, however, can come into play in a one-on-one encounter. Perhaps the Costa Rican party did not really desire to meet with said foreigner. He or she would never dream of saying so directly, how rude! Or perhaps en route to the meeting, a friend or associate happened by, or a brother-in-law needed a hand.

One could hardly beg off after a minute or two. After all, as Ticos are fond of saying, “Hay m·s tiempo que vida,” that is, there’s plenty of time, but life is short. Now, a North American might interpret this as all the more reason to hurry, but a Tico wisely knows otherwise.

3. Money matters. While there is a solid Costa Rican middle class and many Costa Ricans with considerable assets, this is still, by European or North American standards, a relatively poor country, and one whose cost of living is not particularly low but whose wages, by comparison, are.

Perhaps for this and other reasons, even the most casual of interactions play into a complex material strategy for monetary benefit. It’s serious, but like most serious endeavors in Costa Rica, at the same time it’s a gamble, a lark.

In short, this is a country in which thrift is beyond virtue, it is nearly as important as appearance, and material gain will be sought wherever an opportunity perceived. It’s a buyer-beware society, and it’s your responsibility not to get hoodwinked.

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One critical error common among foreigners is to assume that any hoodwinking that does go on is aimed primarily at us. In my experience, however, this most definitely is not the case.

Absolutely everyone across the board, regardless of passport, family relationship, financial status, or personality, is a potential target for improving the financial status of others, be it by picking up the check at dinner or kindly relinquishing the contents of one’s jewelry box, although Ticos are often, but certainly not always, less gullible regarding the more obvious forms of asset-enhancement that might be attempted.

The money issue provoked some of the most heated exchanges in the forum tete-a-tete, and led to one forum participant’s classic toss off as a general guide to visitor behavior:

“Remember, you are the rich white invader from the north-and you are!”

Which leads me directly to:

4. Get a grip, gringo! In its self-aggrandizing condescension-don the mantle of burden, dispense alms to the peons-such an attitude is far more an impediment than an aid to mutual understanding (outside the halls of academia, that is). In the Costa Rican context, such an attitude is not only silly, it also marks you as a willing ninny-abuse me, I deserve it-and is likely to leave Ticos either baffled or with a lowered opinion of you. Plus it displays an appalling lack of understanding of Costa Ricans’ perception of their place in the world.

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Costa Ricans rightly consider themselves to be equal to anyone that might come here from away, and perhaps even a tad superior to some, particularly those who haven’t had the good fortune to have been born Costa Rican. Costa Ricans have a proud, self-directed history of long-standing democratic traditions largely unmarred by foreign dominance or intervention.

Costa Ricans are fiercely patriotic-and they assume everyone else is, too-in a way that Europeans and North Americans haven’t been since perhaps World War II or Vietnam.

Ticos are clever enough, however, to understand that people can adore their country-which they embrace and unabashedly teach their children is one of the sacred duties and joyful privileges of citizenship-but disagree with or even despise any particular government that might come to power. But they will find it hard to understand those who don’t, like them, take enormous pride in their own culture and traditions.

So spare them the apologies, they’re not looking for them. Beginning on an equal footing is more likely to lead to more genuine relationships, open communication, and authenticity over posturing.

5. Humor can and should be found in every situation. If you are a humorless sort, this is probably not the country for you. One of the most beautiful offshoots of the appearance principle is the great appreciation for humor, and in particular, humor regarding the foibles of life, at the foolishness of others, at one’s own shortcomings.

Humor is a finely honed art that helps one explain why a wide variety of situations have turned out the way they have within one’s own life, that of one’s friends, in the world at large. Far better to laugh than to rage or-heaven forbid-be ashamed, and heaven knows there’s plenty of material to work with, starting with the Tico bureaucracy’s notorious emphasis on means versus ends, on process versus objectives.

So if the Tico world tends to be circular rather than linear, at least it provides good fodder for wry amusement, and when you find your foot tapping and your blood pressure rising while waiting in line, just remember that while life may be short, time is abundant.

For a fun review of vocabulary you will likely hear in Costa Rica, but should be very cautious about using without certainty, visit these sites kindly supplied by a knowledgeable Costa Rican Living Discussion Forum contributor.

You can see the Discussion Forum thread here that started it all…

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