Costa Rica 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
Family relations and human relations are very important in our culture. Asking about family is always well accepted and shows that you care. Work is also an important topic but family goes first. Talking about money, investments or the market is not well accepted other than in business conversations, when the topic cannot be avoided.
If you can show knowledge about the country, you will be perceived as a well informed person who cares about the people. As said before, family and human relations take priority over business topics in social conversations.
Politics, local and international are discussed in social conversations too, giving high importance to Latin American events. Students, professionals, and workers show an active involvement and knowledge on country current events and they all have an opinion.
Certainly your Canadian origin is a positive starting topic. Costa Rican’s geographical understanding of Canada is at a beginner level, though an extraordinary number of people have heard of and wonder about Niagara Falls! A useful tool for breaking the ice is a map of Canada. Canada is also interesting because of certain basic differences, like climate. It may be winter in Canada when you are in Costa Rica. Describing seasonal experiences, like skiing, skating and snowshoeing or the change of fall colours can be fun and interesting for Costa Ricans who may never have experienced snow or falling leaves. There are no obvious taboo topics.
Having a healthy sense of humour is a key aspect in Costa Rican life. One sense of the local humour is to nick-name people according to their appearance; for Canadians this can cross personal boundaries around what is politically correct. For example, if one is tall and skinny the nickname (appellido) is flaco/a. For heavier buildsgordo/a. Family and work are both safe and constructive topics; the former is a particularly important dimension in Costa Rican life.
Personal distance is an important difference between our culture and Canadian culture. Our personal bubble is smaller. Touching is much more acceptable for us. When waiting in line at the bank or a public phone, the person behind you will stand very close. This should not be misinterpreted. It is only a difference in personal space. People sit closer in public places. It would be normal to see a crowded table in a restaurant or a bench, all seating very close together.
When we meet someone, we shake hands, and often we shake hands every time that person is greeted. Even in the office, men who work together may shake hands every day in the morning. Women kiss each other to greet. One kiss on the cheek is customary and this happens also between men and women. However, a kiss means friendship, we don’t kiss somebody that we don’t know, and we don’t kiss people in a business meeting.
In normal conversations, patting on shoulders, touching arms and even hugging is normal and accepted. This applies for men and women. Men shake hands more often than women.
Eye contact means that you are being truthful. However, some people could be shy and avoid eye contact, especially those from rural areas and those who have very low level of education or are very young. In business, eye contact it is very important to show honesty.
Gestures are commonly used by Costa Ricans, but not many of them are offensive. The tone of voice is usually high and often, a foreigner may find that we are not direct when speaking. We find problems in denying something to a person, and usually giving excuses is more common than saying "no". The expressions "No se preocupe" (don’t worry) is overused. When talking to somebody, we don’t start by going directly to the point, but going around the topic in order not to present ourselves as rude.
An appropriate distance when speaking with someone is comparable to that in Canada. Eye contact is appropriate, but not in the same sense as the Anglo-Canadian tradition of "look them straight in the eye and give them a firm handshake". Once an acquaintance has been made men usually greet women with a light kiss (peck) to the right cheek, as do women with other women. Handshakes are typically not firm. There are a number of common Costa Rican gestures, but that are difficult to describe in writing. One, for example, occurs when one is leaving and saying "me voy": with palms face up the upper hand crosses and brushes the lower, indicating movement away. Another denotes "dinero" (thumb brushing forefingers as in North America), while another indicates food (palm facing mouth, four fingers clapping down, almost like a wave to oneself).
Display of emotion
Public displays of affection are not common. "Ticos" (Costa Ricans) present themselves as happy and friendly people who are willing to help. Laugh is common, accompanied many times, by expressions of happiness like dancing.
Public anger is neither more acceptable nor common than in Canada. Compared to Canada, there is a higher level of visible affection between heterosexual couples. This affection frequently has a gendered character that presents itself as somewhat "possessive": man tightly holding woman, man leading woman down the street etc. Gay couples are practically invisible compared to an urban space like Toronto, though there is a growing movement to accept gay culture within the fabric of Costa Rican culture. Dance is very popular in Costa Rica. In urban areas there is high level of acceptable, close physical contact, in part due to the style of dances like salsa. In rural areas, physical contact in dance is more formalized; there is less touch and it is less sexual.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Working in Costa Rica requires knowledge of its work etiquette. Dress code will depend on where in the country your job is and what you are going to do. Working in the Central Valley requires a less casual dress code than working close to the ocean. In the Central Valley, people working in offices usually don’t wear short pants, sneakers, or t-shirts to work. Skirts, dress pants, dresses are accepted. If you are going to work on the beach, walking short pants are accepted.
If you have a good knowledge of the Spanish language, you will know that we have formal (usted) and informal ways to address a person. To your supervisor, you will always call him/her "usted". It is also customary to refer to a person higher up in the hierarchy or older as "don" or "doña", accompanied by the first name. Calling your supervisor by only the first name could be considered disrespectful. You may talk to colleagues using the informal way, unless they are much older than you.
The concept of punctuality is very flexible in Costa Rica. People are often late to appointments and they will assume that you will understand. Being late is not seen as a terrible fault as in North America. For social occasions, people are often expected to arrive late. In business, meeting deadlines always causes a good impression although not everybody does it.
Costa Ricans are meticulous about their dress. Dress is relatively formal. Men rarely wear shorts, even in the hottest conditions; light collared, short sleeve shirts are common. Though women’s dress is becoming more "westernized" (i.e. in some cases more casual and sexual) it is still more appropriate to wear a relatively "conservative" dress. Makeup and jewelry are common. In Costa Rica the use of the Usted form is predominant, even for relationships between peers, colleagues and/or friends. For a variety of reasons, people’s concept of time is less rigid than in North America—it is frequently called "tico-time" by Ticos/as and foreigners. It depends on the situation and the work environment. In many cases it is not uncommon for people, particularly in rural environments, to be anywhere from half an hour to two hours late; in some cases they may not show up at all.
Preferred managerial qualities
For a local manager or supervisor, it is important to show a combination of education, leadership and experience. Academic achievements are highly respected in Costa Rican society. Showing that he/she cares about the "person" rather than the "employee" is also important. Being able to listen to associates’ ideas is well appreciated.
When the supervisor is a non-local person, people may wait to see if he/she understands the culture and their needs. Being able to communicate in Spanish is a definite advantage. Understanding the culture means not only understanding the reality of the country but also the people’s priorities. As mentioned before, family activities and enjoyment of the time are priorities in this country. Costa Rican do not live too much for the future, they live and enjoy what they have at the present moment. Knowing about the local soccer teams, learning how to dance, and getting some communication skills in Spanish will show that a manager wants to become "part of the group" and he/she will start to be recognised as such.
A manager will know that he/she is well accepted when getting invited to social gatherings and even to associates’ homes to know their families. So, if you happen to go to any associate’s home, even if it is for a few minutes, it is a good advice to take a few minutes to meet and talk with kids, wife/husband, etc.
The education treadmill is increasingly apparent in Costa Rica as local PhDs and MBAs are more prevalent. Nevertheless strong leadership, hard work and experience on their own are still highly regarded. This does not change significantly for a non-local. However, there is a commonly encountered Costa Rican view that northern/western knowledge, tools and expertise are "better". This is a situation worth being aware of as an ex-pat if one is searching for local solutions.
Getting feedback from staff is possible but this structured, accepted mode of communication is not as evident as in "professionalized" North American organizational culture. Criticism of a superior will more frequently be viewed as a risk and a long process would be required to create a transparent and constructive culture of evaluation.
Hierarchy and decision-making
In most Costa Rican companies, ideas are often generated from the management level. In a very few companies, employee empowerment is encouraged. Traditional methods of administration exist in most companies, generating gaps of power between management and employees in lower positions. For this reason, it is acceptable and expected to go to your supervisor to get answers.
In some new companies, new administration methods are being implemented, and there have been some ideas implemented to improve customer attention and teamwork among employees.
Generally decisions are made within a hierarchical structure. Ideas tend, but are not exclusively, generated from the senior and middle management levels. Consultation amongst team members is common but consensus decision-making is not. As a mode of communication feedback does not have the same history as it might in a fully professionalized North American organization. Nevertheless it is appropriate to seek feedback from a supervisor - one must simply adjust one’s expectations of the process by which it might occur.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Costa Rica has a "machista" culture. However, the gender issue varies in the different groups of society. For example, women and men roles are not the same for a family of an agricultural worker from the South part of Costa Rica as for a family of a professional in San Jose. Traditionally, men are the providers of families and they are the ones who hold the economical power. In some rural areas, and in some families in the Central Valley, most women are expected to serve the men of the house. Women would be in charge of preparing meals, doing the house-work and taking care of the children. These roles, however, may change depending on the level of education of the couple and their adaptability to new models.
There is a strong movement to recognise women issues, however, women still have a status of disadvantage. Traditions still take priority over laws, and women are not hired on an equal basis as men.
By constitution, Catholicism is the official religion in the country. Traditionally, people attend to church on Sundays and the priest has great credibility in the community. Government often considers the opinion of the Church for major decisions. The Church has an active role in politics, educational practices, and health issues. There are religious celebrations that are important events in family lives, such as first communion, marriages, baptisms, etc.
There is a clear difference in social classes in everyday life. Many foreigners may find it hard to accept that a maid, for example, is not allowed to eat at the table with the rest of the family, or is not allowed to sit in the living room of the house. Middle and high-class families have maids, drivers, gardeners, and they try to maintain these social levels very differentiated.
Due to its political and economical stability, Costa Rica has become home of immigrants from many countries but mainly from Nicaragua. There are also many North Americans who have gone to Costa Rica looking for a place to retire. There is close to a million Nicaraguans living in Costa Rica currently. The majority of these people have lower average literacy rate than Costa Ricans. They have integrated themselves into the society holding jobs as: maids, construction workers, security officials, agricultural workers, etc. However, many of them have difficulty finding jobs. Public services, like hospitals and schools have been affected due to the increase of population using services. Unfortunately, there is a stereotype towards Nicaraguans, often they are seen as low class people with lower level of education and, in many cases, their contribution to the society is not appreciated as it should be. Other people with different nationalities are not perceived as negative. Canadians, for example, are seen as educated people who are well informed and come to our country to contribute to the society and take care of the environment.
Gender is an important dimension of social reality. Sometimes referred to as "machismo", it manifests itself in many aspects of everyday life. Men hold the majority of senior decision-making positions. One of the most obvious differences is the frequency with which men, while driving or walking, will stare and make gestures of appreciation when they see a woman. Women’s reactions vary, though there tends to be a higher level of acceptance in Costa Rica for what would be called sexual harassment in North America. This cultural relation has the potential to lead to some very serious situations in the workplace, particularly for Canadian women.
Religion plays a stronger role in the lives of Costa Ricans than it does for Canadians. The majority of Costa Ricans are still Roman Catholic, but there are strong shifts to other faiths, particularly to the evangelical traditions. Frequently when parting from a conversation one might say "nos vemos pronto—we’ll see one another soon" and the person would respond "si Dios quiere—if God wishes".
If one is not religious it can create an awkward social situation. For workplace relationships it would be worth thinking through in advance one’s position on religion, so that at least a local person understands that you care about these issues. Even if not particularly religious, it would also be worth thinking if you are prepared to participate in a local person’s religious activities—these kinds of invitations happen frequently and, if guided carefully, can be very positive relationship builders.
Class distinctions, while present, are not as strong as in some other Latin American countries, such as Mexico. This situation has its roots in how the area was settled and how land was distributed relatively equally in the early coffee farming days. As in many developing countries however there is strong evidence indicating that the gap between rich and poor is increasing. This is particularly evident in San Jose, simply to the observer, where the number of high-end imported sport utility vehicles increases at the same time as the peri-urban rings of low-income, under-serviced housing grow. Class does not play a significantly different role in the workplace than it does in Canada.
Race and ethnicity are at times challenging issues. The vast majority of "ticos" have euro-spanish roots. It is not uncommon to hear views denigrating indigenous people (i.e. Cabecar, Bribri) as well as the Afro-Costa Ricans of the Atlantic coast. In addition, following the civil war which began in 1979, there has been a growing number of Nicaraguans living and working, legally and illegally, in Costa Rica (some count as many as 500,000). "Nicas" are frequently poor migrant labour, occupying positions such as housemaids and seasonal coffee pickers. Ticos tend to classify themselves above the Nicaraguans and yet frequently complain that they are taking jobs and taxing the social service system.
In a culture of human relations establishing a personal relationship is very important to get things done. Many times, somebody will help you because you are their friend rather than their client. When you have a relationship with someone things move smoother. Fortunately, this is very easy to do, as Ticos are very open to get closer to you. You may just want to start asking if the person has children, this will open the conversation right away and will allow you to go further. Tell them about your own family, they will love to hear about it too. Once you have established that relationship, you may want to ask about their personal life before getting into a business conversation.
One could place a medium level of importance on establishing a personal relationship prior to getting to business. For male colleagues, it is common to share a drink (frequently rum and or beer) and conversation as a way of becoming acquainted and building trust. Other ways of establishing a relationship include attending a social event, like a soccer game.
Privileges and favouritism
When having a personal relationship with an employee or a colleague, it is possible that they may expect some kind of special treatment. Personal judgement should be used on each situation. You may want to help your associates and their families, up to certain extent. However, professionalism should be maintained in each case. There should be a balance between the personal relationship and professionalism. Once you mark that balance, people will understand and you will be respected for that.
This is possible, and more likely if the personal relationship is not clearly understood. In some socio-economic spaces (i.e. rural development), the incidence of patronage is higher, and rewarding of family members with positions of power and preferred treatment not uncommon. It is however unlikely that this potential expectation would be directly imposed onto a non-local.
Conflicts in the workplace
A work related problem should always be treated directly with the person or people involved and in private. You may know that somebody is offended by something you said or did, because they might be serious. Rumours may also exist. In these situations, the best idea is to confront the person directly and clarify the situation.
It is important to first address the problem privately to avoid humiliating the person in public or in front of a group. It is appropriate to do so directly; be conscious that situations that require a higher level of communication skill are not easily handled in another language, and the potential for misunderstanding is higher. A way to know if there are problems with a colleague is to become observant of body language. It is an expressive culture in this way and changes in a person’s body behaviour will certainly signal a shift in their feeling about someone or something.
Motivating local colleagues
Costa Rica being a developing country, most people are encouraged to work to earn money to take home to solve their immediate needs. As said before, families are often large in number. Many families have only one member working outside the house, and in many cases, heads of families are single mothers. In these cases, money is definitely a major motivation factor.
At professional levels once the basic needs have been fulfilled, other motivations exist. Good working conditions and commitment are factors of motivation at these levels.
Job mobility options, particularly in the cosmopolitan, global workforce are not as available in CostaRica as they are in North America. This appears to make an interesting difference to people’s performance motivations. Job security therefore is a clear motivator for steady and committed job performance. Certainly an increase in job satisfaction would be a key motivator and might linked to bettering working conditions. These can frequently be demotivating due to space constraints and resource constraints or poorly functioning technological tools such as phone and computer systems.
Recommended books, films & foods
Useful internet links:
Due to the large number of Canadians who visit Costa Rica, it is very easy to find books in public libraries about Costa Rica. These books are designed for tourists, but they have good general information of the country. I would also recommend visiting the Internet web pages of local media:
Mamita Yunai - fascinating history of formation of labour movement around banana plantations on the east coast in the 1930s—(though arguably the nation’s best known book internationally I don’t know if it has been translated to French or English) ...difficult Spanish level due to idiomatic expressions.
Anything by Jorge de Bravo—wonderful.
Some of the cultural highlights of Costa Rica and its people are pastimes like music and soccer. A person who plans to live or work in Costa Rica should understand that music is part of every day life to Costa Ricans. Salsa, meringue, and bolero are part of every social gathering. Soccer, on the other hand, is a passion. Costa Ricans take part in local and international competitions. Every Sunday, and sometimes during the week, there are soccer games, and this topic is always part of daily conversations.
Another important aspect of culture is family. Family ties are very close and often extended families live under the same roof. As a consequence, children take part of social activities and join their parents in different activities. Religion has also an important role in the development of activities and family relations.
If we want to talk about Costa Rican dishes, there is one dish that any person visiting Costa Rica will see frequently: Gallo Pinto. This mixture of rice and beans and species is served mainly for breakfast usually accompanied by sour cream or/and eggs. "Picadillos" are also popular. These are stews made of pieces of vegetables (potatoes or plantain) cooked with ground meat and served with tortilla.
There is a large number of cultural events that take place in Costa Rica at no cost or very low cost. They advertise in La Nación, on the Sunday issues. You can buy this newspaper in local supermarkets or on the street.Tico Timesis the English newspaper that caters to the English community in the country. There is good advertising on what is going on in the country and things to do. You can buy it in many supermarkets, gift or souvenir shops, and hotels.
The "Organización de Estudios Tropicales" is a non-profit organisation that, among other activities, organises week-end courses in different parts of the country that are open to the public. Their web page is http://www.ots.ac.cr/es/
One must try "gallo pinto", a mix of refried rice, black beans, sweet pepper and sometimes egg on top. Sabroso! The fruits are incredible, particularly mango in season—incomparably delicious compared to supermarket imports.
You’ve gotta dance! Learn salsa, merengue, cha-cha-cha... It’s wonderful fun and a great way to immerse in the wonderful culture of Latin music.
The main dailies, including La Nacion are worth reading www.nacion.cr. I would highly recommend attending a soccer game, whether intra or inter national. Some of the best rivalries are between the main cities of the central valley: San Jose, Alajuela, Cartago and Heredia.
Just to mention four important characters:
Costa Rican national hero is Juan Santamaria. He died in 1856 to defend Costa Rican sovereignty that was being challenged by Walker’s invasion.
In 1948, José Figueres Ferrer, president of the country abolished the army.
More recent, Dr. Oscar Arias was nominated for a Peace Nobel Peace prize, for his participation in achieving peace in Central America.
Dr. Franklin Chang, Costa Rican astronaut, is well-respected and appreciated for his achievements in the NASA, United States.
Silvia and Claudia Poll are very well known since they brought home Costa Rica’s first ever Olympic gold medals. Historically Juan Santamaria, for whom there is a celebration day, struggled against slavery and the occupation of Costa Rica by the American William Walker. Former president Oscar Arias is particularly well known for receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987. Finally, Franklin Chan Diaz is a Costa Rican scientist who has worked with NASA and participated in a variety of space missions.
Shared historical events with Canada
Respect for human rights, love for peace, care for the environment are principles shared by Costa Ricans and Canadians.
A current free trade agreement that could certainly affect a variety of business relationships, depending on the sector and scope of activity.
Canadians are seen as people with high level of education who know about our country. Costa Ricans see Canadians as people with similar characteristics, like the love for peace and respect for the environment. The only stereotype that might be harmful is the thinking that all Canadians are wealthy because of coming from a developed country.
It is potentially counter-productive to perpetuate the stereotype of "tico-time" which can imply that Costa Ricans are lazy or disorganized. Better to think of constructive strategies that assume that people are capable and willing to work together, and find solutions that can meet team needs in terms of deadlines, work plans etc.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, the second of four children. At the age of three, her family moved to the town of Moravia located east of San Jose, where she lived for 33 years before moving to Canada. She attended primary and high school in Moravia and graduated as an English Teacher from the University of Costa Rica. After years of working for multinational companies, she decided to take a MBA from ULACIT in Costa Rica. Your cultural interpreter then immigrated to Canada where she has dedicated her time to work for a family business and to teaching Spanish to diplomats and government officials who travel to Latin America. She travels frequently to Costa Rica and lives in Ottawa with her husband.
Your Cultural Interpreter was born and raised in Toronto. During high school his interest in youth and community development sent him abroad for the first time in 1991 where he lived and worked in Guyana for three months. Subsequently he studied International Development at Dalhousie University in Halifax and then accepted a job to work as a development project leader in Costa Rica, where he lived for over a year. He returned to Canada and completed a Masters Degree in Environmental Studies at York University. Field-research for this program allowed him to return to Costa Rica for eight months to study the link between community development and transitions to organic and fair-trade coffee production. For the last year and a half he has been working with a transitional housing facility for street youth in Toronto. He is married and has no children.
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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The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.