Colombia cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
The main topic to be avoided is the drug traffic problem and the stereotypes associated with it. A minuscule proportion of the population is involved in drug trafficking, and all Colombians are very sensitive to the issue. The next issue to be avoided is political opinions and issues related to human rights. They are highly sensitive to some people, and is hard to judge which person could be offended or alerted by such views.
Sense of humor is always important, however Canadian and US humor is seen as dumb by many people, so it will be hard to make a Colombian laugh with a North American joke.
Highland areas value formality and serious deportment. Lowland areas value informality and more extroversion. Use usted (formal "you") in the highlands to be respectful, and tú(informal "you") in the lowlands to demonstrate a refusal to be stand-offish. Use lowland localisms with caution in the highlands.
When meeting a highlander for the first time, smile politely, shake hands firmly and enquire after family and the person’s origins. That can let you ask about that region of Colombia and how it compares with the rest of the country. Find out whether coffee is from that district and whether it produces the best coffee. What other products come from here? If meeting an indigenous woman, expect smiles and not much talking.
You’ll be asked all about Canada and your family. Colombians value family a lot so they’re genuinely interested in yours.
Don’t ask what the person does for a living unless you know they’re employed. Don’t ask about "violence in Colombia", though it’s OK to inquire about some specific event, which may be in the news. Colombians are nice people and hate the thought that people might lump them and the crazy narcotraficantes into one category.
In the lowlands, you’ll be embraced (even kissed if across genders) or given a limp handshake. Be prepared for a hearty greeting if the person has African cultural influences.
There is no difference at all with the Canadian environment regarding personal boundaries and eye contact, and the basic social and business engagement rules apply. With regard to touch, please have always in mind that in business people like to shake hands, and this is almost a requirement, but further touch (specially between men) is not well perceived. A relaxed expression and moderate tone of voice helps to go through almost every negotiation or business environment.
Colombians like to get close to communicate. They’ll move their face as close as a foot from yours and poke your arm (your leg if you’re seated) to make their points. They’re great talkers and the volume can be high. All of this is truer the lower the altitude. Serious faces, direct and sustained eye contact in the highlands, give way to broader smiles and quicker, sidelong glances at lower altitudes. Faces reveal less in the highlands, voices are more inflected in the lowlands.
Display of emotion
Public displays of affection are common and acceptable, however, explicit sexual behaviors are not well seen, and might get you in trouble with the authorities. A normal public display of affection is a hug or a kiss, and is seen as normal. Display of anger is common, however it draws attention from the public, and that is something that you would like to avoid.
The display of emotion is complex. When one’s mother dies or one is injured in love, crying is the manly thing to do. To attend a party means to celebrate, to laugh loud and to dance. And there’s nothing too wrong with singing in public either. What is not acceptable is to lose patience with othersespecially in the workplace, to castigate publicly. In fact, it is the absence of emotion, in such situations, which is impressive. One gets much further being entirely professional. The situation needs to be re-considered by the employee. Some other strategy needs to be found; some other tactic is being recommended. But one controls ones emotions.
In the lowland areas, titanic rages may occur in public, including the workplace: domestic quarrels that burst out of doors, storms of passion that occur on a street corner because of a fender-bender involving two vehicles.
Titanic rages do not come easily to most Canadians and are not recommended under any circumstances. In the lowlands, feel free to share the positive emotions. Keep the negative ones to yourself. In the highlands, uniform politeness is recommended.
Dress, punctuality & formality
In Bogotá, Medellin and Cali, the usual dress code for business is suit and tie. In general, Colombian business environment is formal, and when addressing a person with a senior position within an organization is a general practice to address him/her as "Señor (last name)", for instance, "Tengo una cita con el Señor Rodriguez", to say, I have an appointment with Mr. Rodriguez.
Within the business environment, Colombians are punctual, and is seen as disrespectful to the person expecting you to be late to an appointment. A five-minute delay is usually acceptable, however, being on time is always well perceived. In social situations, punctuality is less important, and a delay of half and hour to an hour is not considered impolite.
Keep in mind that shoeshine men in Bogotá (highlands) wear ties; secretaries wear ultra-high heels, stockings, expensive looking dresses and lots of make-up and jewellery. In the lowland, men use guayabera shirts and slacks (or chinos). Women’s dresses are of lighter material but they still wear high heels and lots of make-up. It is advisable to show up at offices the first day in a blazer and tie. If not needed, they can be removed.
There is a fair amount "verticality" in the structure of many Colombian organizations, which implies a degree of deference, and an unwillingness to make too many decisions. Bosses are generally addressed as Mr or Mrs. So-and-so. Colleagues should initially be addressed this way too. Let them know your first name, if they use it, you could return the confidence.
Arrive on time for work and for appointments and avoid absenteeism and missed deadlines. They may apply to the boss, but not to you. Some employees may be lax, in these behaviours, but they are not appreciated. Let your colleagues set the pace if you’re attending a meeting with them. Because more senior people may postpone or change the date of meetings, it’s wise to re-confirm with their secretaries just before meeting time.
Preferred managerial qualities
The most regarded qualities are education and past position within the corporate ladder, especially with expats. After this first impression is established, clear objectives, being approachable and considerate towards the personnel being supervised are important in establishing a healthy work environment and gaining the appreciation of your Colombian subordinates. It will be hard to see how the staff is viewing you. Moreover, if you ask people direct questions they will tend to tell only the good side of the story fearing negative consequences, so the preferred way to assess personnel’s perceptions is to see if they avoid direct contact with you instead of being eager to talk to you. Generally, people will by eager to reach you if you are well perceived.
Perhaps above all, two qualities in a superior are most highly regarded. The first is appropriate experience. It will be fully understood that a newcomer to Colombia will be unfamiliar with local complexities. But when it comes to management within a particular area, depth of experience will win over supporters.
The ability to rely upon those reporting to the boss is probably the other greatest needed quality. Many Colombian bosses function as authoritariansespecially true among those who are not so good at what they do. Honestly seeking input from the members of the superior’s inner team, before taking an independent and forthright decision, may initially confound people who are not used to being asked for their opinions. But there will soon be positive benefits as a result.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Is highly acceptable to go to your immediate supervisor for feedback, since decision-making in Colombia is generally centralized in the medium to upper level management. With the exception of some multinational organizations, self managed teams and decentralized decision making is uncommon, however, what you will find is that personnel is very participative in the idea generation process, and excellent feedback can be obtained from Colombian employees. Usually people are driven by some healthy degree of vanity, so it’s highly recommendable to make sure that a valuable contribution from a subordinate is adequately well publicized.
In many Colombian organizations, ideas are frequently generated at the very top of the organization. These may come from the Chair and some of the senior Board members, and from the General Manager. The General Manager may also admit one or two of his more trusted assistants into discussions, which generate ideas. In such organizations, ideas seldom come from lower levels, and are seldom sought. Employees are given a task to complete and expected to comply. Regulations are pretty well defined. Compliance is expected.
For this reason, discussions with one’s immediate supervisor about project ideas would often seem peculiar to the supervisor. Offering opinions or recommendations would seem intrusive. There will, of course, be exceptions. The general expectation is that the assigned report, or project design will not deviate very much from earlier reports and project designs on file. The tendency to replicate may limit organizations, and frustrate creative North Americans. One suggestion is to include alternatives "A" and "B" in plans and reports, suggesting the relative advantages and disadvantages of each.
Don’t let the greater informality and camaraderie of lowland office settings fool you into thinking there is less verticality. There may be less apparent informality and adherence to strict timetables and less formality in conversations between the boss and everybody. But he runs the show.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Colombia is increasingly equalitarian with regard to the gender issue; however, women are not well perceived in some types of jobs such as aircraft pilots. Is common these days to see women high up in the corporate ladder, and gender is not an issue at all if her level of education is comparable to her colleagues. In the lower income classes, women have less access to education, and it often happens that they are still perceived as the ones in charge of their kids, with the man providing for the family.
Colombia is mainly catholic country, but there is a proliferation of Christian sects coming mainly from the US. There is a minority of Jewish practitioners, and almost no Islamic presence at all (besides diplomats from Arabic countries). Most of the people are believers, and atheists are seen as a minority, and often are almost required in many social events to participate in ceremonies, in which people assume that you are catholic, so you if you’re not, you have to be aware of this issue.
Colombian society is highly driven by social differences, which are a combination of family origin, education and level of income. High income alone does not guarantee access to the upper social circles, for instance, but low income will guarantee social isolation.
African-origin people are usually perceived as lower class citizens, unless they are good at sports. Generally, you will not find them within a business environment. The same happens to natives, which are generally isolated communities with reduced access to education and employment compared to the main urban areas. Anglo-Saxons are perceived as beautiful, and a person with blond hair and blue eyes will highlight among a crowd.
Hispanic origin people are the standard, and the more colored the person is the less credible it becomes regarding his/her performance, so it is an issue. Anglo Saxon looking people are perceived as better performers, which impacts the way people are seen at the workplace or at a job interview.
Of gender, religion, class and ethnicity, religion would probably be least influential as a factor affecting attitudes in the workplace (except in smaller, more traditional cities a higher altitude such as Pereira, Risaralda, Villa de Leiva). All Colombians are Catholic so far as Colombians are concerned, and the issue is not of public importance. The exception to this is north coast Colombia where fundamentalist Protestantism has made inroads. However, a person’s religion is not an important topic or issue in offices.
Gender could be an issue in the sense that women as peers are more objectivized, and not taken so seriously as equals. In the lowlands, overly familiar behaviour may be seen. In the highlands, that occurs in secret. In public, woman’s opinions may be given short shrift.
Class could be a factor if a peer were seen as of very low status or from a very "good" family.
Extreme class difference could reduce the flow of communications. Real on-the-job competence, and unflagging and professional amiability could eventually help threatened colleagues rise above their fears.
It is important for the person meeting you to know your name and background, certainly, but meeting that person in a relaxed atmosphere before the business meeting helps a lot in achieving the wanted results. Very often, people offer to invite you for dinner at their homes, and is usually seen as trying to establish a relationship, so is very impolite not to attend.
It is very important. The informal structures and interactions are every bit as vibrant as the formal ones. Part of the value of personalizing a relationship is affective. Colombians are kindly and family oriented. The tradition is old. From the time of the Roman Empire, family homes have been built with barred windows to the street and gardened courtyards within. People are used to close relationships and for going to extraordinary lengths to be helpful to those who are kind to them.
And part of the reason is instrumental: as society is already organized into trusting alliances and competing factions, one needs to become part of such alliances to get anything done.
One’s secretary needs to be treated with the utmost respect. In the highlands, she is Srta. X, and Margarita in the lowlands after you have worked together for a time. An occasional flower (i.e. one), a small, impersonal souvenir (e.g. a mini-box of "Worry Dolls" when visiting Guatemala) will show you do not take her work for granted as will an occasional word of appreciation. It must be clear these are not making advances but professionally acknowledging competence. That can be achieved by smiling and speaking warmly but politely, as though addressing your daughter-in-law’s parents, perhaps. Every day, it is worth inquiring after her family, and to seek progress reports on the issues causing worry and those bringing pride.
In the lowlands, conversations are much more relaxed and full of laughter, but the same kind of social distance needs to be maintained.
Peer relations will differ across gender and altitude. "Ribbing" amongst the guys has to do with the other fellow’s heroic swell-ness (or lack of it) and may be quite ribald in the lowlands. (However, humour varies markedly across cultures. Better to laugh at other people’s jokes than to try to entertain and bomb.) There is cross-gender ribbing too, with peers, but better to limit this to work-related success or failure, perhaps. Like any place, people appreciate being heard, comprehended, and having their ideas appreciated, even if not adopted. People don’t like being told what to do, and people do like being part of a team that works out problems together.
With bosses, best to laugh at everything—it’s all funny. Only wait till others laugh first.
Be sure to thank secretaries for their assistance after meetings. They appreciate your thoughtfulness, and they can sometimes facilitate future appointments.
Privileges and favouritism
A colleague will expect preferred treatment if he/she is at your same level or higher in the corporate ladder, and they will expect less from you if you are higher, as a general rule. Lawyers tend to see themselves as high up regardless of their position, but maybe is a common symptom of every western organization.
Favours to colleagues/employees are often expected where there is a personal relationship/friendship. There would not be a productive working relationship if it were not personalized, and favours would then be expected. This is not to recommend you’re falling into such patterns. From the first, an insistence on a meritocracy is invaluable. You will not be believed for the longest time. But people will figure out your new (unfathomable) rules and comply with them to please you.
Conflicts in the workplace
Confront him/her directly, always in private. In public people tend to be very defensive and sometimes hostile. You will know if someone has a problem with you because he/she will avoid you and will prefer to minimize contact with you, so if this happens, make sure that you clarify the situation.
How to deal with a colleague’s work-related problem depends on the relationship you have with the colleague and with the nature of the problem. If the relationship remains formal and constrained, direct confrontation may drive the problem further underground. Questions about this colleague to another colleagues may have negative repercussions. An appeal to a supervisor may be perceived as a sign of weakness or incompetence.
I would suggest that questions to a third colleague be general enough not to occasion feedback. One could ask about procedures or general expectations, for example. I think that efforts to develop a positive personal relationship with the difficult colleague could be attempted. Having lunch or taking a beer after work may be a possibility, or perhaps attending a soccer match on the weekend.
A third option would be to organize a team approach to completing a piece of work, which could involve you, this colleague, and a third colleague. New skills or ways of proceeding can be exchanged in such a setting, with commitment proceeding from a growing sense of camaraderie.
You might suspect a colleague is having difficulties with you if there is a change in the quality of that individual’s work, if his or her behaviour changes (e.g. becomes serious where there used to be smiles or pleasantries), or if other colleagues are vaguely telling you things about this person that leave you somewhat puzzled.
Motivating local colleagues
Money and fear of failure are the main motivators, but a good dose of self-accomplishment and sense of belonging is essential to motivate an employee to perform, especially if he/she is a new hire. Challenge is a good motivator for entry-level positions and/or well-educated individuals, and the motivation theories that work for North Americans usually apply in the same degree to Colombians.
Because of management verticality and authoritarianism, highland colleagues tend to be motivated by pay, promotion and fear of failure. The preference will be to use boiler-plate solutions, and to comply literally with mandates and instructions. Creativity is not usually rewarded or acknowledged. For that reason, your change of tactics (i.e. delegation of challenges to teams, encouragement, the introduction of alternative possibilities) though initially treated with silence and scepticism, will likely bring a heartening response in short order. But be sure to be hands-on at the initial stages, and to follow-up closely and frequently.
Recommended books, films & foods
The most popular and representative writer is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I personally recommend "Cien Años de Soledad", and "El General en su laberinto". This author reflects the idiosyncrasy of the Colombian Caribbean region, and represents accurately the ambience of this region in the beginning of the XX century. Also, there is La María, written by Jorge Isaacs.
Fernando Botero (Fat Colombian characters); Antonio Barrera (Landscapes); David Manzur (Realism)
Music (and the most representative musician)
Vallenato (Escalona); Salsa (Grupo Niche); and for modern Colombian pop music: Shakira, Juanes
Ajiaco: Soup with three different kinds of potato, chicken, and herbs; Arroz con Coco: Sweet coconut rice; Refajo: Beer with red cola; Bandeja Paisa: Sampler of beans, ground meat, rice, plantain and avocado; Sancocho: Chicken of fish stew with manioc or potato, plantain and rice; Postre de Natas: The most representative dessert from Bogotá, made from milk cream and brandy.
Some useful internet links
Local Newspaper: www.eltiempo.com.co (Spanish); Local radio station (with live news): www.caracol.com.co
TV News: www.cmi.com.co; Immigration and police: http://www.das.gov.co (Spanish); Airlines: www.avianca.com.co , www.aces.com.co; Apartment rents: www.metrocuadrado.com; Central Bank: www.banrep.gov.co
Anything by the Colombian sociologist, Orlando Fals-Borda. He makes sense of class complexities and tensions. There’s a great essay he wrote on the failure of co-operatives in Colombia. Also, anything by the Colombian novelist (and Mexican resident) Gabriel Garcia Marquez (especially "Love in the Time of Cholera" and "One Hundred Years of Solitud"). Even the lunacy of magical realism make sense in Colombia—a tropical cowboy frontier sort of country.
The music from the north coast of Colombia—Santa Marta, Cartagena, Barranquilla—as one competition-winning song rhythmically put it. But even the Vallenatos from around Cali, way upriver, and the Porros from the coast in neighbouring Venezuela to the east fit into this category of Africanized Latin songs which are rhythmically hot, lyrically witty—scatalogical and satirical, and musically layered. This is world calibre stuff.
If you’re up in the Cordillera Central, that branch of the 3 Andean mountain chains that sit like 3 fingers in the middle of the map of Colombia, you’ll need a hot soup to warm you and raise your spirits. Ask for a bowl of ajiáco (a-hee-AH-co). This is served in a molten clay bowl and made from 3 varieties of potatoes and served with chicken in it. To the soup you then add capers, avacado slices and cold anato (like yogurt or sour cream).
There are lots of pastry shops around Bogotá. Up in the 2 Santander Departamentos (north and south) on the eastern mountain chain, I had a world-class flan. In Gran Antioquia near Medellín are hot arepas. These are fluffy "English Muffins" of rice and eaten like bread.
When cash is low, go to any ordinary restaurant and ask for the plato fuerte (the "strong platter"). It’s the plate-of-the-day served on a bandeja or oval platter and usually consists of rice in the shape of an inverted cup (guarantees you get a decent amount), a piece of yucca, a quarter of chicken, or some beef .
You can get great coffee in the restaurants, or you can bring it home from the shops to prepare yourself. Colombians can’t get hold of the Excelsior and the Supremo varieties, which are exclusively for export. Sello Rojo (red seal) is worth buying for the aroma and full-bodied mild flavour. Traditional cooks in Colombia use coffee to flavour meats and soups.
TV shows are generally soap operas (but very good ones!) that reflect our idiosyncrasy, such as "Pedro el Escamoso", or "El inutil". TV is full of news, sports, and musical shows, so it’s a good idea to pay a cable service (TV Cable, Cablenet, are a few) if you’re a serious TV watcher.
If you like the night scene in Bogota, it is a very safe city in the nice areas, so if you enjoy an excellent meal or a good drink, you can go mainly to three spots: Zona Rosa, located between Calle 81 and Calle 85, and between Carrera 11 and Carrera 15; Calle 93; Via La Calera, which is the road connecting Bogota to an upper mountain town, with plenty of restaurants, bars, and discos, with a scenic view of the city.
At least once, try a restaurant called "Casa Vieja", excellent for very typical food.
The best way to learn about our culture is to go to a play in one of Bogotá’s theaters, Teatro Nacional, or Teatro Nacional La Castellana (are different). If you like music, you can always enjoy concerts at the main library’s music hall or at the main theatre (Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango, and Teatro Colon), where they play zarzuelas, classical masterpieces, and local folklore as well.
Newspapers, TV and radio are great for keeping up, understanding opinions and values, and finding out about the cultural and sports activities you plan to attend. Pick out the kind of music and sporting events that attract you and go. I used to go to the huge futbol stadium in Bogotá each Sunday and enjoyed the crowds as much as the games. While in that city, I joined the national choir and sang the national anthem for the President of Colombia one time. I also went to one bullfight to know the feeling of Roman games at the Coliseum more than anything.
Taken from the history books, Simon Bolivar was the independence war hero, and is still a visible legend on literature and popular culture. He was the one fighting against the Spaniards, and gave us independence from them in the 17th century.
Since sports are very important in Colombian life, the most recent heroes are sportsman. "Cochise", "Lucho Herrera" and Fabio Parra were the most representative bicycle champions in history. "El Pibe Valderrama" is the most remembered soccer player in history, and most recently, Juan Pablo Montoya has become a National Hero with his successful career as a Formula 1 driver.
I’m not up to date on Colombian heroes and stars, unfortunately.
Shared historical events with Canada
There are no shared events that could harm the relationships between both countries. Canada and Colombia have been traditionally very friendly with each other.
Canada and Colombia enjoy good relations. Colombians don’t know too much about Canada but love when you tell them.
Canadians are usually confused and perceived as "Gringos" (US citizens), and usually carry all the stereotypes arising from that comparison. Mainly, the stereotypes associated with a US citizen are related to imperialistic attitudes towards Latin-American countries and lack of respect of the local authority. Stating clearly from the beginning that you are a Canadian citizen usually helps in avoiding conflict, and most of the time eases the relations with most of the people. Sometimes, Canadians are seen as easily cheatable in business, mainly because of the language barrier.
Drug lords exist in Colombia as does violence. They are sensitive topics for Colombians to mention first. Colombians believe the north needs to legalize drug importation. This is not because they support this industry. But because it is their opinion that drug demand not the supply of drugs is the source of the problem. I listen with interest rather than debating the issue.
About the cultural interpreters
Your Cultural Interpreter was born and raised in Bogotá until the age of 27, with the exception of a brief period between the 4th and the 6th birthday, in which he was living in Israel. He is the only child of a family with mixed Antioquian (Western-Central Colombia) and Caribbean ancestry. He graduated in 1997 from the Universidad de los Andes as a Mechanical Engineer, and afterwards he worked for five years for the main Colombian airline. He is about to graduate from his MBA studies in Montreal, where he lives currently.
Your Cultural Interpreter was born and raised in the town of Niagara Falls, Canada, the middle of three children. He studied American Literature and Psychology at the Cornell University and later took courses at Ontario Teachers' College, University of Toronto. His work sent him abroad for the first time in 1966 as a CUSO volunteer where he taught school in Bogotá, Colombia and San Andrés Islas. Your Cultural Interpreter lived for six years in various communities of Colombia. He completed an M.S.W. (community development) at the State University of New York and later his Ph.D. at the Land Tenure Centre of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in both cases conducting extensive research in Colombia. He has been living in Belize City, Belize for the last eight years. He works at the at the University of Belize, School of Social work, does socio-economic consulting, and has 2 children and a stepson. Your Cultural Interpreter has travelled extensively in the Americas, Africa and Asia. He is Jewish and married to a Creole Methodist. His hobbies include reading, guitar playing and working on a new book.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
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