Ecuador 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
Canadians that have visited Ecuador have always fallen in love with the people on first contact. To make a good impression, it is important to show genuine interest in your interlocutor’s life and offer honest answers to questions. Good topics for conversations may include family, work, history of one’s place of origin. Of course, it is important from the start to establish your marital status, or whether you’re in a stable relationship, especially when meeting someone who might be interested. Fair-skinned people (both females and males) are particularly sought after; therefore it might be important for them to set these boundaries from the start. In general, sex is a taboo topic, while one’s salary and weight are not. So Canadians should be prepared to answer questions concerning their money, salary and the like in the first or subsequent encounters. Coyness and protectiveness can be perceived as offensive, therefore is better to have studied answers which do not compromise your privacy or principles while still playing the social game.
Ecuadorians, like most people, can be protective of the ways they do things and at the same time not have problems advancing their opinions to others as to how things should be done. Therefore a first conversation should avoid touching on controversial issues such as, house decoration (unless one is praising it), politics (unless broached by them), gay rights, or even human rights for natives and blacks, among others.
Humour is good, however, it may be a delicate place to start as the boundaries of humour may touch upon areas unacceptable for Canadians. There is the need to keep an open mind on this, as humour is culturally and contextually specific.
Ecuadorians will be very interested in your origins and family background. It is not uncommon for complete strangers to ask you what may be considered by Canadians to be very personal questions, about your marital status, how long you’ve been married, how many children you have (or if you have none, why not and when are you planning on having them), their ages and so on. They, in return, don’t mind answering such questions when asked. They also like to talk about where they’re from in the country since many would have come to the major cities (Quito, Guayaquil) to work. There is a great deal of regional pride here so asking about their home town or region would spark good, neutral conversation.
Politics would be a difficult subject to initiate when meeting a colleague or business contact for the first time. It’s not that Ecuadorians won’t engage in discussion of politics but that you would not be able to correctly interpret their political leanings from the hints they drop and thus might make a blunder in expressing your own opinion. One political attitude common to all classes is that Ecuador is rich in resources but remains poor for a variety of reasons. The explanation for this varies and indicates a person’s political leanings and class background. Likewise with any mention of corruption: everyone is aware of the country’s poor ranking in this regard and everyone blames someone else for the problem. As a newcomer, you should listen to what people say on this theme before trying to initiate any discussion yourself.
Religion is not really problematic in most urban environments but can be a sensitive topic in rural areas where communities have been divided by Protestant missionaries over the last 30 years. Otherwise, religion is not really a very interesting topic at all as most people are Catholic. Unless you feel strongly about the topic, it is wise to say that you do believe in God, if asked, and be discreet about how you demonstrate this belief or what church you attend. People won’t resent you for being part of another faith; they have a harder time coping with atheism.
Another interesting topic is how the recent (2001) conversion to the US dollar has affected the country. Everyone has an opinion on whether this has worked and how or why it hasn’t. The class background of the person you talk to will determine their feelings on the question.
Humour is always the last thing one can easily translate across languages or cultures. Garden variety Ecuadorian humour tends toward use of stereotypes of people from different regions and gender stereotypes. Some of it may sound quite offensive at first to Canadian ears since we are very careful with such topics at home. Ecuadorians can also be sarcastic about public figures and this is embodied in the New Year’s Eve ritual of making effigies of them and burning the effigies at midnight. This humour can be quite sophisticated but takes some time and experience with daily events to master.
One of the many things I have learned about Canadians is how protective they are of their ’personal space’. In a movie I saw recently, I even learned the exact measure of the personal space: 14 inches. There will be no fourteen inches of space for Canadians in Ecuador. There is some space that may be allotted to a foreigner, which may diminish with time. And many foreigners do get used to this physical closeness and others may not.
When meeting a person for the first time, two things can happen. The person may take the initiative and try to kiss you on one cheek while holding your hand. This is acceptable on first contact even in formal settings, such offices or universities, and it may come from people in positions of authority or those who could be considered your peers (usually defined by age group or interest). The other possibility may be easier on people with a strong sense of space: when meeting a person for the first time, one can shake their hand firmly even if there is the slight pull, there is no need to worry about the kiss. It is acceptable to establish boundaries with a hand-shake, especially with men if you are a female. It is OK to politely (implicitly) refuse the kiss.
Note that not all Ecuadorians will not hold your hand firmly. For instance, people from working class backgrounds, or indigenous peoples may more shy to offer their hands and or express themselves physically; whereas most mestizos and whites do kiss and hug people on first contact with more freedom. There is perception/conception of superiority correlated with skin colour: the lighter, the higher, and vice versa. Entitlements to set the boundaries also operate in the same way, with lighter skin people dictating the type of distance that s/he will keep from the darker ones. Many people in Ecuador judge the hand shake as a measure of sincerity: the firmer (without breaking someone’s hand), the better.
Eye contact is important when talking to people, however it also follows some of the dynamics described above. Making eye contact is usually a way of acknowledging the presence of a person, and therefore is not considered rude, rather quite acceptable and indeed necessary, both on the street and in the office context.
As mentioned above, touching, even hugging, is quite common for Ecuadorians, especially when they have known a person for a considerable amount of time. Canadians should be prepared to be touched and to touch people when talking. It is common to see women holding hands as they walk down the street, and on some occasions men. Also, one can see couples hold each other in public places, and performing what I have come to know as "public display of attention/affection".
Gestures and facial expressions are integral to communication in Ecuador. It is not uncommon to hear someone holler for the keys or anything else they need across the street or in a hall. This is more openly done in the Coast than in the Sierra (Highlands). In general people from the Sierra are more reserved than those from the Coast. I am from the Sierra and I have found people from the Coast to be strikingly different from those from the Highlands. People in the Coast are more laissez-affair, while Serranos are more reserved. Nonetheless, in all situations and regardless of the region, politeness is highly regarded in Ecuador. It will open many doors.
Ecuadorians don’t stand that much closer than Canadians in a normal speaking situation but you will notice that in other situations, they can tolerate much more physical contact than Canadians are used to.
Most urban Ecuadorians will easily make eye contact with you when speaking. In rural areas or when dealing with indigenous peoples, it can be difficult to achieve eye contact particularly with elderly people since they avert their eyes to show respect to you as a foreign and presumably wealthy, educated visitor to their village or home.
People who are not friends do not touch frequently when talking, particularly in the highlands area. On the coast, there is more physical contact but usually contained within pairs of groups of the same gender. Greeting and saying goodbye often involve contact: a kiss on the right cheek between women and women or women and men, often while shaking right hands. This is done with the right-hand handshake with left arms extended, patting the right shoulder of the other between men. Hugs are restricted to those who are very close as with old friends and close family.
One gesture that can offend is that to indicate height of a thing or person. In Canada, we will extend our hand flat at the level of the thing or person indicated. In Ecuador, a distinction is made between things and people so that a flat hand is used for things while a hand bent at the first knuckle with fingers straight indicates a person. Ecuadorians don’t use many specific gestures while speaking but again, highlands people are more reserved in this regard than those from the coast who may gesticulate more.
In keeping with the general rule of reservation, people don’t generally raise their voices when angry, though their tone may become more clipped.
Canadians are in general more direct than Ecuadorians. For example, we will walk into a shop or office and directly begin to ask our questions or request information. In Ecuador, one always begins with a greeting. If you know the person, a brief exchange of ’how are you?’ is also considered polite. As well, it can be difficult to get the information you want when things aren’t running smoothly. For example, if a bus/plane/person/meeting is delayed, it can take many questions to arrive at the answer of when the event will happen. This is often because people don’t know the answer but are reluctant to say so. If you find that you’re not getting straight answers to direct questions, you can often conclude that you may be speaking to someone who doesn’t know how to help you or that they can’t give the answer they think you want and therefore attempt to avoid it instead.
Display of emotion
Emotions, positive and negative, can be seen expressed on the streets and even in workplaces, schools, and markets. The degree and the force with which emotions are expressed vary from city to city, and from region to region. The Coast is louder than the rest of the country, and city folk tend to be noisier and less inhibited than people from rural areas.
Anger, for instance, is generally expressed in hierarchical ways: mother to child, or husband to wife, or father to child or even a mestizos/whites to anybody darker (blacks or natives). In some occasions, people may interfere/intervene to stop someone from hitting somebody else. These interventions are not only acceptable they are expected, notwithstanding the reaction of the aggressor. Customarily, interventions are sought from elders or someone who wields enough respect or can physically subdue the aggressor. Canadians may be called to intervene in such situations and should expect them to be more visible than in Canada.
Generally, you will see few public displays of emotion unless driving or inebriation is involved. Drivers will curse at one another and use the horn liberally and on Fridays and Saturdays, many working class men drink to drunkenness in public venues and may argue or fight one another. Apart from this, Ecuadorians generally are quite discreet in public. Young people will show affection as will married couples in the form of holding hands or having the man’s arm around the woman but it is not usual to see more intimacy than that in public. Even when people are angry in a lineup situation that someone has butt in, they will express themselves with a humourous remark but rarely show outright anger. If you express frustration or anger, you will notice that people are taken aback at your openness.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Workplace dress code is formal; although not expensive. People are expected to observe some version of formal dress code.
Spanish, like French, has formal and informal ways of addressing people. The formal Usted is used in offices. On first contact the person, regardless of the position, is addressed by title (Dr, Licenciado/a, Sr/a, Mr., Ms., etc) followed by their family name*. The level of formality is usually established on the initial meetings where the person with higher rank (social or otherwise) grants the other person the right to use "tú" (more informal).
Time is valued in Ecuador but not in the same way as in Canada. Being on time does not mean arriving on the dot, but rather within a flexible lateness. This is especially true when there are meetings of functions, and it is ’fashionable’ for the bosses and VIPs to make people wait. It is viewed almost as an entitlement.
Arriving at the office is bit different; employees must arrive on time at their desks. Punctuality is valued and rewarded, as is working overtime to meet deadlines. Productivity is the name of the game, especially in the private sector or small companies.
* Note that names in Latin America follow different rules: everyone has two last names (usually one from the father and one from the mother, in that order). The family name is the father’s name.
Dress is much more formal on average than in Canadian workplaces. Women in offices are expected to wear skirts or trousers, blouses, stockings and heeled shoes while men wear suits in higher positions or shirts, trousers and ties lower down in the hierarchy. All sporting clothes, including running shoes or hiking boots, track pants or jackets etc., are reserved for the weekend and are not considered appropriate office attire. Women dress fairly conservatively though skirts are often above the knee and form fitting. Children wear uniforms to public school but university dress is open.
When initiating a formal business relationship, you should use the Usted form of Spanish verbs as well as Señor/Señora/Señorita and the person’s first last name (there are generally two). If you work with this person over the longer term and are on equal footing with them in the office, you can wait for them to switch to first names and the tú form of the verb. People you meet socially who are roughly your age will expect to use tú. You will also here an informal construction to refer to a person directly, vos. This is a contraction of vosotros but doesn’t imply plural and is used interchangeably with tú. The vosotros form of verbs is never used in Ecuador.
People are quite sensitive about other indicators of status so that if someone is a medical doctor or a PhD, they should be referred to as Doctór or Doctóra. Other important designators are Ingeniero/a (Engineer) and Licenciado/a (Bachelor’s degree), which replace Señor/Señora/Señorita when appropriate. It is wise to stick to formal usage with people like taxi drivers or guards as well. Ecuadorians will often use the informal with servants or service providers to insist on a social class differentiation, but as a foreign visitor/resident, you will often get better treatment if you remain polite with these people.
Ecuadorians are expected to be on time to work but this varies with status. Higher status people have more flexibility and may not be at their desks first thing or come back from lunch promptly. Ecuadorians are very aware of the different approach to time of North Americans and will joke about whether the meeting time is ’Ecuadorian time’ meaning at least half an hour later than stated, or ’Swiss time’ meaning on the dot. Mostly, they will try to respect your sense of time but that will mean only 5-10 minutes late. When a high status Ecuadorian wants to show his/her status, they may make you wait in an outer office for half an hour or more. Getting frustrated does not move things along in this situation.
Preferred managerial qualities
Most people in Ecuador would tell you that they love working with a strong leader, who has sense of humour and commands people’s respect through experience, honesty, education and hard work. This is the image of a person in a position of leadership. High, very high expectations are placed on the person in charge.
It is expected that a non-local manager have new ideas, and that he/she be hard working, honest and personable. Often times, foreigners are perceived as self-important and believing themselves to be superior. It is important for Canadians to break this myth and ensure that these ideas do not persist, as they may impact negatively on the relationship.
Managers generally would not be aware of their staff’s opinion about them. Staff would choose more subtle ways to show their views and/or dislike through deference, silent yet reluctant acquiescence, and distance that manifests itself in an unusual yet very marked separation between private and work lives. Conversely, positive comments/opinions are more easily aired by anyone at any level, regardless of the status or position of the person making them. People are more likely to be more communicative if they have a pleasant environment.
Ecuador is very status conscious. Your status depends on your education and apparent class background (dress) first of all. In most workplace situations, underlings are not expected to contribute new ideas and are often discouraged from doing so. That is not to say that you shouldn’t initiate this type of information exchange, but if you don’t initiate it, it is unlikely to happen. As a manager, you will set the tone of the office by your own behaviour. Thus, being on time and respectful of colleagues will earn you similar treatment. Often, the Canadian sense of egalitarianism in the workplace is well received here as people at lower levels appreciate being treated fairly and equitably. At the same time, you have to respect those in higher positions and can’t assume that equal treatment will be well received by them.
In any situation, even in one’s own culture, it is difficult to know what goes on behind the boss’s back. Generally, when formality breaks down a little and you are invited out or to an occasion like a wedding or baptism, or included in jokes or political commentary, you can assume that your staff feel comfortable with you. However, if the social distance between you and them is very great, they may be too intimidated to invite you to an event, feeling that you wouldn’t enjoy their level of hospitality. You can demonstrate your openness to things Ecuadorian by coming to know local traditions and foods and talking to your staff about these things. This could ’break the ice’ with them and prove that you are not so far above them after all.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Decisions in general are made at higher levels, although they can be interpreted differently as they filter down. Management styles vary from place to place; there are places where decisions and ideas come from participatory meetings, but in other places, management takes the decisions and the rest implement them. In implementing a decision, it is quite acceptable to consult, however, independent thinking and action are also valued. This is especially true if consultations lead to finding/developing innovative approaches to issues and problems. This involves finding someone who can provide guidance and who is prepared to teach a young person the secrets of the trade. Mentoring is very common.
In most companies and offices, decisions are made higher rather than lower on the hierarchy so that the lowest members of staff do not have much authority in many matters. Most decisions appear to come from the highest position in the office and are not subject to independent revision or assessment. In other types of organizations like NGOs, there has been much effort expended to work on collective decision making practices and ways people can be allowed and encouraged to express their opinions. This is a struggle since the culture is one of respecting not questioning authority. This puts a Canadian in a difficult position since doing something other than that which is deemed normal or permissible means going over the head of the person you’re dealing with and this has to be done tactfully to avoid giving offence. Often just finding out who to talk to can involve long negotiations since the front man/woman neither wants to admit they can’t make the decision, nor do they wish to expose their superior to aggravation. Once inside the office as a colleague, you can go ’upstairs’ with your questions or requests but you should be careful not to suggest to those lower down that they are useless or powerless since this will only encourage them to show you their power in other ways. Making suggestions for change also must be done carefully and probably in private where a superior is concerned.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Ecuador has many cultural and social contradictions: it is both conservative and progressive at the same time. Women can work on anything they want, if they want to. But at the same time, the opportunities are not there depending on one’s social class and they are very few programs to change that fact.
Religion, class & ethnicity
One of the die-hard colonial legacies is hierarchy based on: ethnicity, gender, class and not so much on religion. Ethnicity and class generally go with shade of skin: more money is located in lighter hands, and less money in darker hands. Natives (~40% of the population) and blacks (~7-10% of the population) are the most disadvantaged, followed by mestizos (~45-50% of the population).
Most workplaces would typically have the following composition and ratios:
- technical staff = mestizos mostly male, majority;
- support staff = mostly female, mestizos;
- middle management = male, mestizo/white,
- upper management or senior staff = male, white. This makes for interesting power relations: those in high echelons expect deference and submission from those below them. Higher educational attainment and access to money among those who are typically at the bottom of the social scale is eroding this structure.
Many women work both before and after marriage but there is still a lot of gender discrimination where women are thought to be mothers first and foremost. Ecuadorian women can and do occupy positions of respect in government and business but there aren’t many of them beyond the secretarial level. Sexual innuendo and flirting are still part of office culture, which may offend Canadians, particularly women. Ecuadorian men often think it will insult a woman if they don’t make comments about her appearance and do it to avoid insult. Maintaining polite formality in these situations is probably the best reaction.
In general, Ecuadorians will assume that everyone is religious to the extent that they believe in God. Unless the workplace is defined in some way by religion, it is unlikely to come up as an issue one way or the other. There is a community of Lebanese in Ecuador but little real awareness of either Judaism or Islam, much less Hinduism, Buddhism or other non Christian religious practices. If you are not Christian, you probably will not experience prejudice but may find that people simply don’t know much about your religious culture. If you are not religious at all, it’s probably best to say you believe in God but aren’t practising or something that avoids having to defend your atheism since nationals will generally not understand how you don’t believe.
As mentioned throughout, class is very significant here and determines how you treat others and how they will treat you. As a foreigner, you will be assumed to be rich since, at the very least, you had the money to come here and however you live, it will be better than the average Ecuadorian can manage. Even being middle class here is something to aspire to for the majority so there is no comfortable anonymity in claiming this identity as there is in Canada. As a member of a small elite in Ecuador, you are expected to dress and act the part in the sense of being neat and clean and of being able to afford taxis and other luxuries. If your circumstances don’t permit the luxuries, expect to get attention when taking buses, particularly in poorer areas. At work, you should be sensitive to the circumstances of others so that when suggesting where to eat with colleagues, for example, you might want to let them choose so that you don’t put them in a situation of being unable to afford the food or drink available. Those of higher classes also expect to be treated as such, which mostly means using correct terms of address and respect. The Canadian way of being familiar with seniors is not appropriate.
This is another sensitive topic. Declaring oneself Indigenous, Mestizo (white/indigenous mix), White, Black or other is a political act that says who you are and also how you aspire to live. Ethnicity is often closely tied to the class hierarchy and was originally its justification. This is not a topic for casual conversation with Ecuadorians and may not be appropriate even with people you know. Nor should you assume by the way someone looks physically that you can determine his or her identity. There are many ’whites’ who look mestizo or even indigenous, many mestizos who look indigenous or white and many indigenous or blacks who prefer not to identify this way. Historically, Ecuador has been a very racist society where whites occupied top positions, Mestizos middle rungs and indigenous and Blacks at the bottom. Depending on the work environment, you may have a hard time getting someone who is white to pay attention to or respect non-whites. You may also hear racist remarks in the workplace that will sound quite offensive to Canadian ears. Among close friends, you can initiate discussion of these issues, but it is not advisable in less intimate relationships.
Working in Ecuador is fun! People are warm and very sociable. A greeting is the first and most important plank (basis) to construct a bridge to conduct business. When arriving to a new place it is important to greet loudly everyone in the building/office (from the guard to the Executive Director). Each person has his/her share of power and it is very important to establish a relationship with everyone. The type of relationship would depend on the degree of connection, the rate of contact, and the type of business to be done. Everyone is your colleague. Some of the locals would let you know this in overt and covert ways. Personal relationships are important for trust building, and to develop a support network in the office. This is usually done in ’neutral territory’ and later it can move to more private arenas such as homes.
With the doorman for instance, one can give him (typically men are found in these functions) money for a coffee, or even go for coffee with them. This might useful, if you need to access the office and he is the only person you can resort to. You can be sure to get his help and know what kind of a person he is. This is crucial for females.
Among colleagues, going out for lunch (or other meals, or movies) is important. There is an expectation that your colleagues may, to some degree, become your friends and you might be invited for dinner to their homes. You are expected to invite them in return. Many friendships borne in the workplace last a lifetime.
Establishing a friendly relationship with clients is also important, but it does not have the same requirements as building relationship with colleagues or co-workers. Should there be any lunches or shared meals, the territory MUST be neutral, especially if it involves a cross gender rendezvous. Males deal with these issues differently; they can go to a soccer match or club for a drink. The supplier usually wants to please its client and therefore picks up the tab.
One final note, if one makes an invitation to go out, the assumption is that one picks up the tab for everyone. Sometimes moneys can be collected from all those attending to cover the bill, in a sort of pay-what-you-can fashion, whereby the person who is better off makes the largest contribution. This expectation maybe surprising to Canadians, used to each person covering her/his expenses individually.
Ecuadorians are fairly straightforward in business dealings so you don’t have to have a friendship or social basis for hammering out a simple market exchange of goods or services. Getting government related things done does not require a personal relationship with bureaucrats but getting an insider to help can move things along a great deal faster simply because processes are often multi-staged and complicated.
Among nationals, there are relationships known as "tio/a politica" or political uncle/aunt that connect people from different families. Most Ecuadorians will use these networks when trying to do something legally or bureaucratically complicated. If you don’t have these relationships, things will probably get done in the end but may take longer. Once you have some work or social contacts, it’s always a good idea to ask a national for their advice on how to go about initiating a business relationship or government process. If they have contacts, they will often share them with you or advise you if none are needed.
If you’re meeting people to initiate a long-term business relationship, you will probably at some point want to go for lunch with them. Almuerzo or lunch is the main meal of the day and so is the usual choice for business meetings.
Privileges and favouritism
Yes, they would. Favouritism and special privileges are also present in the Ecuadorian workplace. One can get hired for who-one-knows as much as for what-one-knows.
Expectations coming from close friends and family are often high. In general, people expect to get help from friends in offices and positions of power, for instance, a speedy process for a passport, and whatnot.
A person can expect that friends may call on, or recommend his/her expertise and experience should they need a job done. This is seen as a special privilege, and does not mean that the person performing the job would expect pay for work not done, or for sloppy work. The privileges and expectations are reciprocal and the person that hires would not hesitate to fire a "friend" if they do not meet their part of the agreement.
Canadians may be surprised to find people speaking and accepting special privileges from friends more openly than in Canada.
A colleague who is a friend may expect more understanding of those unpredictable events that can and do happen in Ecuador. While sympathy is sometimes warranted, it wouldn’t be advisable to give them more leeway than others with similar circumstances. As for hiring friends and family, it’s not always a bad idea since you have another personal tie and obligation to call upon if work is not done satisfactorily. The drawback is that if you’re not satisfied, you may have to ask your employee or colleague to criticize a member of their own family or a friend and this could be awkward all round. The up side is that local people know who can be trusted to show up and/or do a good job so this can be an advantage on a small scale. On a larger scale of contracting companies or giving out many jobs, you should be careful of going with the first friend of a friend who comes along and may want to contact a few companies independently to get quotes and estimates before deciding. You might also want to poll other companies in the same business to find out who they use and why. Then if you hear that the personal contact is indeed a good bet, you can go ahead with it. In all cases, be wary of special monetary privileges since this is the basis of corruption here and you will probably not want to be seen to be part of that cultural/business tradition over the long term.
Conflicts in the workplace
Work-related problems often are based on a misunderstanding; however they can escalate. A conversation over coffee, or simply a discussion can clarify issues and might be all that is needed to address the problem. These conversations are best done in private, where each person can have a chance to explain their feelings and views.
Knowing when someone has a problem with you is not difficult, but it will not be easy either. People for the most part will conduct themselves very professionally in the office. One might sense a person’s dislike or unfriendliness in more social instances such as going out for lunch, or when the person chooses to avoid the situation altogether.
Dealing with a colleague who exhibits a hostile or unfriendly attitude is not always easy. The best way to deal with conflict is to confront it, discuss it and to get to the root of it. Confrontation does not have to be aggressive, but rather an opportunity to talk and clarify things. If matters cannot actually be discussed and the hostility continues, it is better to report it to the supervisor in charge so as to prevent the situation from interfering with work.
Conflicts have to be addressed privately and with discretion. Ecuadorians are unlikely to respond well to direct criticism of their work or attitude. People use roundabout allusions and suggestions to communicate dissatisfaction with another’s performance and the tone should remain polite. If you’ve offended someone, indications might include failure to engage in chitchat when you greet them in the morning for example, or other ’cold shoulder’ techniques. Their response to you will depend on your relative status so that someone equal or above you would be more likely to openly tell you they have a problem with you, whereas someone below would be very reluctant to be forward with you. In general, if Ecuadorians are pleased with someone’s work or enjoy working with them, they are very effusive in their praise; if they are dissatisfied, they will still say positive things but in a more restrained way. In that sense, a lack of extreme compliments may indicate displeasure. You can use this technique to show your displeasure too as long as you also use high praise when you’re satisfied.
Motivating local colleagues
For people in Ecuador, working and having a job is a source of pride, notwithstanding the limited opportunities. Ecuador has a combined rate of under and unemployment of 40-50%. In general, people are motivated to perform well when they operate in a pleasant working environment that gives them recognition and fair remuneration for their contributions. In a country where your income barely allows you to make ends meet, some sense of job security provides an added incentive for performance.
There is also a strong sense of commitment to work and to the task at hand, which drives many people actions. In many cases, this means that people could work for months without pay, or waiting for their pay-cheque. On the other hand, among the people who enjoy a higher degree of job security, there are those who are less committed precisely because they do not fear job loss. To address this, some companies and organizations reward their employees’ performance with bonuses and other economic incentives at the end of the fiscal year.
This depends a lot on the circumstances. In social services, I have met many committed workers who work hard for little pay because they believe in what they are doing; they are clearly motivated by the satisfaction of helping others. Small business owners also often work very hard to keep their business afloat and attract loyal clients.
In employment situations, jobs are hard to come by and so there is a certain motivation to work hard enough to keep them; however, where jobs at lower levels are mostly underpaid, one can expect to find few people willing to go beyond the call of duty for the sake of job satisfaction alone. To get motivated workers, there needs to be a decent wage and the possibility of promotion or reward for hard work. Most Ecuadorian companies and private firms in Ecuador take advantage of lower wage rates without realizing that their employees need recognition for extra effort despite the fact that jobs are highly prized. While there is no surplus of jobs here, there are more underpaid overworked positions than decently paid ones so people will work hard for the latter and not so hard for the former.
Working conditions can also be significant. I’ve noticed that where there is respect at all levels, workers are happier and more likely to perform well. In many situations, due to class, ethnic and gender hierarchies, people are accustomed to a certain type of treatment that we would think of as unfair, sexist or racist. Where those customs are not observed and everyone is shown respect, productivity and will to work is improved.
Recommended books, films & foods
Ecuadorians listen to international music in Spanish and in English. But, we do have our own musicians and some of them enjoy great popularity, such is the case of Segundo Rosero (un cantante popular), the quintencetial icon Julio Jaramillo y los rockoleros (Ecuador nostalgia).
- locro de papas
- arroz con pescado
- mote con queso
- chochos con tostado.
Useful internet links
There are a few books written for expats to Ecuador including Michael Handelsman’s Culture and Customs of Ecuador (2000, Greenwood Press)—relatively up to date. To get a perspective on Ecuador’s past and the current nature of indigenous politics, Kintto Lucas’s We Will Not Dance on Our Grandparents’ Tombs: Indigenous Uprisings in Ecuador (2000, Catholic Institute for International Relations) and Jorge Icaza’s The Villagers (1963 in English)—a classic, by one of Ecuador’s most renowned writers. Blanca Muratorio’s The Life and Times of Grandfather Alonso (1991, Rutgers University Press) is a good historical account of indigenous life and history around Tena in the Amazon region and is very readable. There are also a few anthropological ethnographies of a number of indigenous communities including Mary Weismantel’s Food, Gender and Poverty in the Ecuadorian Andes (1988, ISBN 0-8122-8115-2), Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld’s The Native Leisure Class (1999, University of Chicago Press) and Sarah Hamilton’s The Two-Headed Household (1998, University of Pittsburgh Press) good for some perspective of life outside the city. If you can read Spanish, visit Libri Mundi or Abya Yala bookstores in Quito, which offer a huge variety of local novels and treatises on the key issues facing the country.
Answering this question could become a book, and as such I would recommend to read a few books. Although written for tourists, they do provide a helpful perspective on the culture, and places to see. My own favourites are the Lonely Planet and The Rough Guide. There are also other local guides, which can be only obtained in situ at CETUR (government tourism corporation).
To get a taste of the local culture, be sure to attend las peñas (soirées with folk music), and the discos to learn Salsa. Dancing is really important to socialising with friends. There are magnificent books to read that will help you gain insights into the Ecuadorian psyche: "Huasipungo" by Jorge Icaza; "Plata y bronce" by Fernando Chávez; "Entre Marx y una mujer desnuda" by Jorge Enrique Adoum (also a movie) among others can provide a very broad view of Ecuador’s thinking. For more information and guides visit the website of the Consejo Nacional de Cultura at: http://www.cultura.com.ec/
National television programming is free, there are about 10 privately owned channels coming out of large cities. There is also cable service, which carries mostly international programming. My favourite programs are La television, Contacto Directo,, El Diario Hoy and Diario La hora. These are young newspapers, which exist side by side with more traditional and old dailies such as El Comercio.
Ecuadorians are passionate about their local food but each region has its specialty. You need to identify the specialty of your area first and become acquainted with it. For example, the valleys around Quito specialize in roast pork called hornero while coastal towns offer a variety of seafood in lime juice called Ceviche. Many regions also specialize in a corn or potato dish as these are the national staples. In the highlands, a favourite potato cream soup is called Locro and is usually served with white fresh cheese and avocado. Coastal people like spicy beef and eat it for breakfast too. Rice is a basic that comes with nearly every meal in the highlands whereas yucca is served more in the eastern lowlands or Oriente region and plantain (platano) with rice is more common on the coast. For the day of the dead, November 2nd, colada morada is served. This is a hot drink made from purplish corn and fruit and is quite delicious. It comes with guaguas de pan (children of bread), which are shaped like gingerbread men and can be sweet or salty. Street vendors sell local fast food like salchipapas (French fries with sausages, mayonnaise and ketchup). This is very greasy and not advisable in the first few days here. The main meal of the day is usually lunch or almuerzo. One thing to note is that coffee is often instant and you choose between having it in hot water or hot milk. Outside major cities or specialty restaurants, brewed coffee is hard to come by.
Ecuadorians follow night time soap operas made in Mexico, Colombia and Brazil. If you like watching television, you may want to start to follow one of these since they make great conversation topics at work or among other patrons of the show. Local television shows tend to be of the variety or local features variety.
Ecuador doesn’t have a well-developed film industry but in Quito both the Casa de la Cultura and Cinema 8 ½ in Floresta neighbourhood offer cultural films, films by independent filmmakers from here and Latin America in general.
If you live in a major city, there will be lots of events in the cultural sphere to participate in. Going to a local soccer match is a fun way to begin to learn about the various loyalties of fans and intricacies of the game. There are regular film and theatre offerings as well as musical concerts throughout the year. When your city celebrates its founding, there will be festivals and street parades/parties with local foods and there are always religious fiestas to attend. The local newspaper will announce these events as they come up as will radio stations. Work colleagues would be a good source for large-scale events but for more niche oriented events like alternative theatre or jazz at the local bar, you need to find someone in that sphere to help you. Talking to lots of different people about your interests will help you locate a source for this information as people may be able to connect you with their friends or family who have similar interests and may take you along. Actually going to a few events may lead to contacts as well.
Heroes are different depending on the people you meet/ask, but there are some common heroes. Simon Bolivar, for instance, is one such hero. His fame comes from his intellectual and personal participation in the battles for independence from the Spaniards. More locally made heroes are Eugenio Espejo (founder of the first independent newspaper in Quito), Olmedo (the first Ecuadorian born president and founder of the democratic movement), Eloy Alfaro (founder of liberal political thinking; fighter for secular and female education; active member of the abolitionist of slavery movement, etc); Juan Montalvo (promoter of liberal ideals through his writings, model teacher), and so on. Historical and more contemporaneous personages emerge from social struggles, women’s equality, human rights, the arts, and these vary from region to region, and from one ethnic group to the other.
Ecuador’s heroes are drawn from politics, history and sport. Many streets and neighbourhoods bear the names of renowned public figures from the past such as President Eloy Alfaro who led a liberal reform movement at the turn of the last century. Other figures are drawn from the battle for independence from Spain in the early 1800s. The last Inca, Atahuallpa, and his general, Rumiñahui, are also heroes since they resisted the Spanish conquest in the 1500s.
In Chimborazo province, a priest named Father Proaño started the Liberation Theology movement among indigenous peasants there and is nationally recognized for his human rights work. In many rural areas and among university students, figures such as Che Guevarra are symbols of resistance to American imperialism and now globalization. With the rise of indigenous political activism in the last decade, national indigenous leaders are gaining wider respect for their work in helping their own communities and for defending the rights of the poor in general. Some names associated with this movement include Antonio Vargas, Luis Macas and Nina Pacari.
Ecuadorians participate in a very nationalistic school curriculum and so are more aware of their history and the great feats of former leaders than are Canadians. If you become acquainted with this history from less nationalistic sources, you should be careful not to offend by questioning the verity of the national version of events.
Ecuadorians are passionate about soccer and good players are recognized public figures. However, as far as I’m aware, there is no equivalent of Brazil’s Pele or Argentina’s Maradona in soccer.
Shared historical events with Canada
Depending on the type of work Canadians will do there, they may encounter some questioning from people regarding their link or knowledge of a Canadian oil company that is part of the conglomerate behind the oil exploration in the Oriente (Ecuadorian Amazon) and the construction mega-project that plans to lay the crude oil-pipe through an Ecological Reserve in Sierra. The project is, at best, controversial and has generated strong opposition from local and international environmental organizations. This project threatens the local ecological reserves and the lives of indigenous people while ignoring the most basic international environmental standards. Canadians may be asked to explain or provide help to address this problem.
In general, Canadians are well regarded, although it is necessary for them to stress the fact that they are not Americans. Canada is not in the world radar of Ecuadorians, but they are interested to know more given the opportunity.
Attitudes to foreigners have shifted here over the last 4 years. Due to numerous foreign pressures (IMF & World Bank), the country has been opened up to investment and many more foreigners have come here to work. They have formed enclaves in suburban communities (like Cumbaya outside Quito) and this rarely encourages mutual understanding with local people. In general, expats are perceived to be wealthy and associated with a dramatic decline in living standards for poor and middle class Ecuadorians. We also have many of the things that Ecuadorians aspire to so their attitude is contradictory: Ecuadorians want to be more like the expatriates but don’t like what they represent in terms of Ecuador’s recent economic problems. There are also many foreign projects here like the OCP oil pipeline (of which a Canadian firm is the major shareholder) and the new airport deal (another Canadian company has this contract) that are not received favourably by everyone. The OCP has generated much opposition among many classes and in many regions of the country and the airport is beginning to generate strikes against the idea of privatizing this service. Expats need to be sensitive to these issues and be prepared to engage openly with Ecuadorians on the street. If you speak the language and engage in conversation with people, you will find that there is less resentment than if you cannot or will not talk to people.
Canadians in particular should realize that we are in the public eye here due to our many economic ties with Ecuador and not seen as particularly different or better than our US American counterparts. From a distance, we are all gringos and for some segments of Ecuadorian society, gringos are not welcome.
On a more positive note, Canada is also involved here through the Fondo Ecuatoriano Canadiense de Desarrollo (Canadian Ecuadorian Development Fund), which channels CIDA monies to development projects around the country. As well, there are a significant number of Ecuadorians living in Canada, particularly in Toronto, so some people have a personal connection to Canada and/or would like to develop one by gaining access to a visa. Apart from these economic relationships and migration, there are no historical events that particularly tie our countries together or that would positively or negatively affect work or social relations.
One of the most pernicious and prevalent stereotypes about foreigners relates to their sexuality and their attitudes. Ecuador on the surface is very conservative society, more so in the Sierra and in rural areas of the country. The coast is more tolerant and open to diversity of behaviours. In fact, Sierra people view Costeños as too liberal, and too unstructured in their life-styles. Such behaviours are not seen kindly, and in fact they are looked down upon.
There is a perception among men and women, that gringas (foreign women) are more liberal when it comes to their sexuality and therefore make for an easier sexual conquest. This may interfere in relations where males are in positions of power and may want to take advantage of females. Women should use their common sense to recognise unwanted advances and not be afraid to stop them or demand an explanation from the person making them. There is a good chance that the man would want to reassure the woman about his intentions. Women who are firm (yet friendly) in rejecting advances gain the respect of men. So, there is no need to be afraid to make a mistake in raising the issues and clarifying your position and intentions. The country is safe and pleasant, and not every man that makes a comment to woman has ulterior motives, so one should not let paranoia spoil good friendships or partnerships.
Other less pernicious stereotypes include: foreigners’ informal and lax dress code, and sometimes even unclean appearance (images based on backpackers), pushy and hurried, and "loaded" (they always have a lot of money!).
In my experience watching Canadian students deal with Ecuadorian culture, their assumption that everyone is out to "rip them off" and that all gestures by Ecuadorian males to Canadian females are sexually motivated often impedes their ability to form other types of relationships here. While one must be careful here in terms of petty thievery or attempts to inflate prices and with sexual harassment, outright paranoia is counterproductive. Often, you can ask someone what the price should be before engaging the service and thus judge whether the person is taking advantage. If they are, simply go to someone else. In terms of sexual harassment, it is usually a problem only in smaller cities or towns where men whistle or comment on the streets or in bars where it is expected that a woman has come to meet men. Otherwise, Ecuadorian men are fairly respectful and not every social advance is a sexual one.
In business, the most common stereotypes are that people and processes are generally untrustworthy or unreliable. Again, there is a substantial amount of corruption here but it is mostly applied to nationals. I have found that one can generally get on with life and business without special payments or ’baksheesh.’ This may not apply at higher levels where important contracts are involved. As well, the average Ecuadorian works incredibly hard for little payment so at lower levels, the charge that people don’t work very hard is unwarranted. Finally, meetings are frequently delayed but for good reasons. In general, these stereotypes are likely to apply more often at higher levels of politics or business than lower ones.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in Ibarra, Ecuador the oldest of nine children. She was raised in this town in the north Sierra of Ecuador until the age of 25 years. She graduated with B.Ed. from the University of Universidad Tecnica del Norte and later immigrated to Canada to continue her studies at Trent University (Peterborough) and Memorial University (Newfoundland). She has travelled extensively for work and pleasure in Ecuador, Germany and Eastern Canada, to a lesser degree in Cuba and Mexico. Your cultural interpreter is currently living and working in Ottawa and is involved with organizations looking at issues of diversity in Canada. She is married and has no children. Her cultural heritage is African-Ecuadorian.
Your cultural interpreter was born in 1963 in Toronto. She is a first generation Canadian on her father's side, and second on her mother's; both were English. She studied Social Anthropology at the University of Toronto, St. George Campus and completed three degrees there, graduating with a Ph.D. in 1995. Since graduating, she spent 2 ½ years in Singapore teaching English and Anthropology and first went to Ecuador in 1998 as the Academic Coordinator for Trent University's Trent-in-Ecuador program for 3rd year development studies students. After living for a year with an Ecuadorian family in Sangolqui, just outside the capital city of Quito she went on to work in Quito where she continues to work.
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