Publication: Colombia Book by Sounds and Colours
Author: Jamie B. Gelbtuch
Cultural Mixology recently surveyed 250 natives from six countries in Latin America, including Colombia, to find out an insider’s view of what people believe makes their culture unique in terms of language, influences and perceptions, regional differences, values, punctuality, and food.
Ethnically speaking, Colombia is quite diverse. More than half the population is Mestizo, followed by 14% Mulatto, 4% each of Black and Mixed Black/Amerindian, and 1% Amerindian. More than ethnically diverse, however, respondents internally viewed their culture as segregated. Regional differences were divided according to major cities, such as Bogotá, Barranquilla, Calí, and Medellín, and seen most starkly in ways of speaking (accents, dialect, vocabulary), cultural traditions (food, music, dance), physical appearance (skin and eye color), economic concentration, competitiveness, and opportunities. One person commented that Colombians are perceived as “…serious and cold if they are from Bogotá, partiers if they are from the coast.” Words such as welcoming, friendly, happy, and culturally rich were contrasted with dangerous, drug dealers, cocaine, and corruption when describing perceptions. A recent Colombian tourism campaign slogan shows the country’s acute awareness of this gap: “Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay / Colombia, el riesgo es quererse quedar”.
Although Colombians speak Spanish along with the vast majority of countries in Latin America, respondents remarked on some distinguishing characteristics. When asked how formal they would consider their culture (in terms of the use of titles, forms of politeness, social protocol and rules), 93% rated the culture as moderately or very formal. It was the only country out of the six surveyed (the others being Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica and Mexico) to include a substantial percentage of very formal ratings. For example, the usage of Usted (formal you) is customary, even among family members, as is the uncommon practice of using Su Merced (Your Honor) in everyday conversations, particularly those that are service-oriented or hierarchical situations. As one respondent affirmed, “My culture is almost always considered very proper. This notion usually comes from those who listen to us speak Spanish. We tend to pronounce words correctly and use an extensive vocabulary.”
What Outsiders Don’t Know
Most Colombians surveyed were keenly aware that the mention of their country to outsiders typically evokes stereotypes related to some combination of the three C’s: coffee, cocaine, and corruption. However, when asked what outsiders don’t know about their culture, Colombians best expressed their answers as everything that is not related to drugs and violence. For example, Colombia produces flowers and emeralds. Colombians are very entrepreneurial. It is the birthplace of the Lasik eye surgery technique and the pacemaker. Geographically speaking, “Many do not know there are three satellite islands in the Caribbean Sea (San Andres, Providencia, and Santa Catalina) that belong to Colombia.”
When cultural patterns are only slightly different, as is often the case with countries within a region such as Latin America, it can be harder to see the variations than when comparing countries that are more obviously distinct. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that shared language equals shared values equals shared behaviours. Understanding how each country’s insiders view their culture as distinct rather than how outsiders view the region as a whole is a critical factor for success.
Special thanks to Lauren Amaio, Consultant at Cultural Mixology, for her support and work on the survey.