Culture Shock in Costa Rica
One of the hardest aspects of local culture for the North American or European to live with is that the truth is considered relative — as is time. Often, these two elements go hand-in-hand, as with the person who tells you he will come at a certain hour and may not show up that day and maybe not that week! The fact that he may have not had any intention to do so is simply waved away vaguely. Rather, this points up a frustrating Tico characteristic–he will tell you what he thinks you want to hear, whether it bears any resemblance to the truth or not. It is not unusual for a foreigner to ask directions and to be directed wrong. The person simply saw that you wanted directions, so he gave you an answer, although he had no idea himself. In one case, a Guanacaste housemaid asked for a day off, although she had already had several. She gave her “patrón” (employer) a totally ficticious reason. The employer pointed out the fallacy. Undaunted, she gave another reason, equally as unlikely. Her attitude was, “If you don’t believe that, then maybe you’ll believe this…”
Costa Ricans are the world’s most hospitable people. When they say “Mi casa es su casa” (my home is your home), they are not following a hollow custom. When visiting a rural family, it is not at all unusual to find yourself loaded down with fruit as you leave, an honored custom. We have heard Ticos severely criticize a fellow Tico for not even offering a visitor a cup of coffee. On the other hand, they tend to be difficult guests, especially if they bring their children. Privacy is not a consideration and it is not unknown for kids to go through their host’s drawers and closets, not to steal, but just out of curiosity. If one has a Tico mate, the mate’s family may show up without notice, even at dinner time, and sometimes will demand to stay overnight if they are from out of town.
In this culture, people do plan but not far and, like our own countrymen no matter where we come from, many only have a hazy concept of the relationship between cause and effect and present actions (or inaction) effecting the course of one’s life in the future. This may have to do with the rote eduction they receive in school. It tends to kill off one’s problem-solving ability a study by three psychologists from the University of Costa Rica found some years ago. Therefore, the predominant attitude about car care is that functioning shock absorbers are an optional accessory and periodic maintenance is an unnecessary affectation. Until the Spanish firm of Riteve initiated honest annual inspections, Ticos ran their cars until something vital broke. The mechanics have to use a crystal ball to diagnose the problem since the most common explanation for bringing a car into the shop is, “No sirve” (it doesn’t work.)
The strongest unit, despite countless cultural changes in the last decades, is still the Costa Rican family, extended in ways that most North Americans and Europeans find overwhelming. This is a small country and no one lives far from anywhere, but the tendency is for them to seek one neighborhood, if possible one piece of property. Of Europeans, probably only Italian immigrants will not find this a bit much. If a foreigner were to marry into one of these families, he (or she) should be prepared for absorption into problems and complications of relatives one barely knows and, in some cases, has nothing in common with. It is a bit like joining an army. (Hint: It helps if you are good at remembering names.) One last warning: Be careful of what you say about someone. The person to whom you say it may be a relative. To be safe, assume they are.
**Article from the archives of the American-European Real Estate Group**