Cuba 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
Cubans are very sociable and friendly with a good sense of humor. They are willing to chat with a stranger and are very respectful of foreigners. Topic on weather is a good ice breaker (Cubans love/hate their climate) for conversations. Cubans also enjoy talking about national food, their families or will ask you questions about yours.
A common topic among Cubans is the political and economic situation in the country. Nowadays, people speak about it more openly than before. If you are a foreigner, people would try to explain some things that might not be obvious to you right away, such as how the country works, or how to do things “the Cuban way”. However, try to be neutral in your opinion and just listen at first, since your opinions come from an “outsider’s point of view”. A good starting point would be to let the Cuban person know why you are in the country. Cubans are very helpful and will try to assist in every possible way. Sometimes they can appear a little too intrusive as they try to assist.
Cubans talk about everything without difficulty as they are very curious to learn about other cultures and many subjects. It is very rare that you would have a bad impact on them.
Good discussion topics would be to ask question about Cuban culture (music, movie, visual arts, etc.) and of course to share some information about Canadian culture. It is not recommended to talk about Cuban politics when you first meet someone; wait until you have developed a closer relationship to the person. They could get suspicious if you want to talk about it on the first conversation.
Cubans have a very open communication styles. Verbal communication is direct and may be considered somehow blunt by Canadian standards. Cubans are courteous but prefer to address issues directly and not tangentially. If they consider a subject is of a delicate nature, they may refer to someone for advice.
Greetings are very important in such a way that people greet each other even if they have not met previously. Saying hello when entering a place is very common and is a sign of good manners.
Cubans often use physical gestures when communicating. From a distance, you can almost infer what a conversation is about based on hand movements, facial expression and body posture. People usually keep eye contact when talking. It is considered a sign of trust, respect and it indicates that you are really engaged in the conversation.
In formal situations, a handshake is acceptable for men and women. Cuban men usually shake hands and hug friends when meeting or saying goodbye. Cuban women kiss one cheek and hug female and male friends. Kisses are not usual among men, unless they are family or old friends.
If you’re a woman travelling alone in Cuba, it is important to know that some men can whistle at you. However, this doesn’t mean that there is a danger. It’s something very usual in the streets.
Cubans speak loudly and with a lot of passion. If you don’t understand Spanish, it may appear they are arguing and are mad at each other. Be aware that Cubans can get closer to you and also touch you when they talk. This can bother you if you’re not used to such communication behavior.
Display of emotion
Cubans usually show their emotions openly. Displaying of affection are very common and frequent. Someone coming from another country may be shocked to observe how openly those displays occur in public sometimes. Cubans prefer to settle issues openly instead of simmering discrepancies. However, displays of anger qualifies as a negative public behaviour.
Yes. Cubans are very expressive. They call each other with nick names and they always kiss and hug when they meet. The usual way to say hello to someone you know is with one kiss on the cheek.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Cubans mostly are lenient with deadlines. A work has to be label urgent to be treated as such otherwise it will be remanded to a later date.
In general, Cubans tend to dress in a casual way, unless the dress code states differently (e.g.: working positions where wearing uniforms are the norm). Since temperatures are very high, suits are not usually worn by men. A type of shirt called guayabera usually made out of cotton is worn instead and considered elegant.
Cuban people are highly informal in their personal relationships. They are willing to bond with a stranger even if it appears superficial. Unless informed otherwise, briefly even at the first encounter the “Usted” (You treatment of respect) will be substituted by “Tú” (You treatment for friends, relatives and children). When at work, a more formal style of communication is used especially when communicating with supervisors or managers. It is common that co-workers become friends, so communication is less formal.
Cubans are very proud people and they always dress well when they go out for a meeting or an activity. They appreciate a person out in public giving attention to the way they present themselves and their appearance.
Cubans usually arrive on time to appointments but it’s not a big deal for them to be late as well.
Preferred managerial qualities
Supervisors and managers are respected when they are hardworking, modest and experienced as well as respectful towards their subordinates. They earn their subordinate’s appreciation when they are knowledgeable and are well informed about their work. Cubans appreciate being consulted and their opinions taken into consideration. A manager acting without consulting its subordinates will be obeyed but not considered a respectful person. Eventually someone will openly confront his/her management style.
It is advised, without diminishing the authority, to establish open and honest relationships with subordinates. They will perceive you as someone in charge by knowledge and not simply by appointment.
The way you express and present yourself should show that you’re an important person. They expect you to be serious and well presented to consider you a manager. They will not really believe your position if you try to be funny and familiar.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Usually, decisions are made by directors or managers without consulting employees. Staff could be asked directly at a meeting about their opinions and suggestions on how to proceed on a certain topic, but it is the manager who ultimately decides. Sometimes employees avoid giving their opinions, because they are not sure if they are going to be taken into account.
Hierarchy is respected in the workplace. Usually, decisions are taken by the director or supervisor. It is possible to have a good discussion without fear while maintaining a lot of respect. While respect of hierarchy is very important, it is always possible to have a discussions.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Although the macho mentality is still prevalent, Cuban society has achieved a high level of equality between men and women. Nowadays, more women hold key positions in the government as ministers, directors, or managers.
Class was almost non-existent or not visible during the 1960-1980 period. After the collapse of the communist bloc in Europe and the opening of the trade with Western countries, class differences have emerged constituting a reality in the Cuban society today.
It should be noted that there are two currencies in Cuba. Workers who earn their salary in Cuban Pesos (CUP) usually have a hard time acquiring basic products for daily life as well as having access to some services. The case is different for a sector of the population who has income in Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC), such as musicians, athletes, employees of firms, embassies and tourism, and people who own private businesses. In general, government policies have preserved the basic rights to all its citizen such as universal education, health care and employment.
Cubans are very open towards religion. Catholic and African religions are the prevalent ones. For approximately 30 years, government policies discouraged any type of religious activities. After the collapse of the communist bloc in Europe, the government re-evaluated its approach to religion and the Cuban population openly returned to religious practises.
Cuba is a multi-ethnic nation with a highly mixed population. Most Cubans are from Spanish and African descent. People of Asian origin are also common, in a lesser ratio. A high percentage of the population could be qualified as mestizo or mulato (a mix of races). The number of people of aboriginal origin is very low, and they usually live in the eastern part of the country, mainly Guantánamo.
Usually, Cubans are very open minded. Women take an important place in every type of organisation. There is no noticeable separation between Classes. There is a recognizable difference between boss and employees but you can easily see a boss engaging in conversation with employees (e.g. a doctor can be seen having a conversation with a worker without protocol). In recent years, an acceptance to religion is being noticed. Even people who don’t practice religion are becoming curious to learn about religion.
Cubans value personal relationships over professional ones. Having good personal relationships will open many doors that may get obstructed/closed otherwise. Before getting to business, it is a good idea to establish a rapport with your colleague or client. It is even acceptable to ask some personal questions about their family or what they like to do in their spare time.
Cubans are very warm who give great value to relationships. It is important to be approachable to establish a sincere relationship. You will give a bad impression if you appear cold and unfriendly. Once you established a relationship, you will be surprised by the amount of generosity and loyalty you receive. They usually pay a lot of attention to their relationships.
Privileges and favouritism
When you become friends with a colleague, you are sharing more than the time at work, communication could become less formal, and you can occasionally share details of your personal life. So, some considerations or privileges might be expected. An open discussion on the topic may discourage such expectations.
Cubans sometimes see privileges as a way to improve the situation of their family. It is important to know that many Cubans live in a modest condition and they will be very grateful to receive your help.
Conflicts in the workplace
Cuban people usually maintain good relationships at work. However, when problems arise, Cubans prefer direct confrontation to discuss either personal or work-related issues. It is recommended to address the person privately at first, and do not involve your co-workers. Cubans are open to criticism but they will discuss if not in agreement with a given idea.
When management has to be involved, it is recommended to balance the approach to the work-related problem. The management course of action will have a decisive influence on the outcome.
Cubans don’t like conflicts. They prefer to resolve issues privately. It is not common to see people yelling at each other in public during a conflict. They usually have a way to resolve conflicts with calmness and even with good humor.
Motivating local colleagues
Cuban employees are very responsible and usually perform well on the job. However, taking into account the low salaries they receive, an improvement in working conditions, as well as a promotion that leads to a raise, are good reasons to motivate them perform better on the job.
Recognition from the colleagues and from the management are also an incentive.
A good salary, good conditions and good relation between colleagues.
Recommended books, films & foods
Books and suggested readings
- José Martí, Cuban National Hero (Poetry, Essays) - Ismaelillo y Versos sencillos (poetry); Nuestra América (essay); En los Estados Unidos (compilation)
- José María Heredia (Poetry) - Oda al Niágara (Niagara)
- Cirilo Villaverde (Fiction) - Cecilia Valdés (novel)
- Nicolás Guillén, Cuban National Poet (Poetry) - Poesía de amor
- José Lezama Lima (Fiction) - Paradiso (novel)
- Alejo Carpentier (Fiction) - El siglo de las luces (novel)
- Dulce María Loynaz (Fiction) - Jardín (novel); Poemas sin nombre (poetry)
- Leonardo Padura Fuentes (Fiction) - El hombre que amaba a los perros (novel)
- Memorias del subdesarrollo (Memoirs of underdevelopment) – Directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea
- Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and chocolate) - Directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea
- Havanastation - Directed by Ian Padrón
- Vestido de Novia – Directed by Marilyn Solaya
- Conducta - Directed by Ernesto Daranas
- El ojo del Canario- Directed by Fernando Pérez
- Ernesto Lecuona (pianist and composer)
- Beny Moré (singer)
- Rita Montaner (singer)
- Chucho Valdés (pianist and composer)
- José María Vitier (pianist and composer)
- Leo Brouwer (composer, orchestra conductor, and guitarist)
- Silvio Rodriguez (singer and composer)
- Pablo Milanés (singer and composer)
- Van Van (popular music band)
- Duo Buena Fe (singers and composers)
- Ballet nacional de Cuba “Alicia Alonso” (dance)
- Ballet Liz Alfonso (dance)
- Congrí (Mix of black bean and rice cooked in the bean broth and with spices)
- Roasted Pork
- Boiled cassava with garlic dressing
- Fried ripe plantain
- Avocado salad
- Black bean soup
- Okra with pork
- Deserts: rice pudding, custard, sweet shredded coconut.
Cuban cinema is the best way to learn about the culture. Like the people, the movies are witty and funny with self-mokery and second degree humor. Here are some suggestions: Fresa y chocolate, Guantanamera, La lista de espera, La Muerte de un burocrata and the very beautiful documentary Suite Habana.
Some of the most popular authors are Zoé Valdes, Wendy Guerra, Jesus Diaz and Pedro Juan Gutiérrez.
In Havana City, places you can visit and things to do
- Museum of Fine Arts
- Museum of the Revolution
- The Capitol Building
- La Cabaña Fortress
- University of Havana
- Cannon Shot Ceremony in La Cabaña Fortress (everyday, at 9:00pm)
- Visit La Bodeguita del Medio, in Old Havana, traditional food.
Places to visit outside of Havana City
- Viñales and Soroa, in Pinar del Río
- Varadero Beach
- Santa Clara
- Santiago de Cuba
- Cubadisco – music festival – May
- International Book Fair – February
- International Guitar Festival – May
- Havana Ballet Festival – October- November
- International Festival of New Latin-American Cinema – December
- International Jazz Festival – December
It should be noted that baseball is the National Sport. Many Cubans follow their team at the National League of Baseball Championship throughout the year.
Newspapers: Granma, Juventud Rebelde, Trabajadores, Tribuna de La Habana
Magazines: Bohemia, Palabra Nueva, Alma Mater
Every big city has a list of festival and cultural events. Cubans are very attached to their culture and these events are very popular. When there’s no festival or particular event, there’s always an exhibition or a show programmed regularly.
José Martí is the Cuban National Hero. Born in 1853, in Havana. He is a poet, writer, journalist, translator, but mainly the most advanced and outstanding political thinker and Cuban revolutionary leader. He died in the first battle he participated; in the War of Independence (1895-1898).
Carlos Manuel de Céspedes (1819-1874). He is lawyer and landowner from Bayamo who is also the initiator of Ten Years' War (also known as the Great War) (1868-1878).
Antonio Maceo (1845-1896). He was born in Santiago de Cuba. Small landowner, joined the Ten Years' War, during which he reached the rank of general. He fell in battle during the War of Independence (1895-1898).
José Marti, Che Guevara and Nicolas Guillen.
Shared historical events with Canada
There are no historical events between Canada and Cuba that could affect work or social relations.
I don’t think so. Every collaboration with Canada has a great signification for Cubans. They always see Canadians as good partners in many areas: economy, art, education, health, etc.
Mostly it is the stereotype that every Cuban loves salsa music, baseball, drinks rum and smokes cigars or lies on a beach the year through.
Many Cubans do not like nor know how to dance salsa or simply prefer classical music or rock. Many do not like or even understand baseball. Also many Cubans do not drink at all or smoke.
As for lying on a beach: Cubans do not go to the beaches during the Cuban winter (barely Canadian spring temperatures) because it is too cold.
Canadians, in general, are perceived by Cubans as friendly, respectful, engaging and open to discuss any topic. However, still persist the image of a predominant white Canadian society (mostly created by the influx of traditional tourism to Cuba).
That some of them are looking for tourists to get out of Cuba.
About the cultural interpreters
The SME was born in Havana City, Cuba, and studied at Havana University. She currently lives in Ottawa, Canada.
I created a cultural organisation dedicated to artistic exchange between Cuban and Québec. We organised some festival where theater, music, visual art and cinema were presented in Cuba and also in Montreal. Every Canadian delegation brought their culture and also provided help by donating medication, furniture, computer, etc. The project took place from 1997 to 2003. We reunited around 80 persons during these years.
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.
You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.
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.
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