The Dance Card’s Full: Group Loyalty in Chile

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I’ve been an observer of Chilean culture for many years now, and observing someone else’s culture, when done right, reveals an awful lot about one’s own. Many foreigners complain about how hard it is to make real friends with Chileans. I just happen to have a theory on that regard. We, by definition, are outsiders. We are out of context, we have few or no social networks or obligations and, being the social beings that we humans tend to be, we reach out to others in search friendship and are perplexed when it is not reciprocated. Don’t take it to heart. It’s not that Chileans are not interested in you; it’s that they don’t have time. Their dance cards are all filled up.

I see it like this. It all begins with the “baby theory.” At the most basic level, human parents everywhere have a responsibility to keep their children safe and help them become adults. What changes however, is the job definition. Essential needsfood, shelter, safety, education, etc.seem to be universally common, but the way of going about it can have a distinctly different focus.

A young couple from the US takes their new baby into their arms for the first time and knows that they must raise that child to be a responsible individual, someone who can stand on his or her own two feet and walk through this world with confidence and self-reliance. To be someone who can lend a hand, but who won’t ask for one. Someone who will work hard and live a productive life.

In Chile, indeed Latin America, however, those young parents welcome their wriggling infant into the fold and are charged with raising a responsible member of the group, someone who knows that the group is life’s safety net and that it comes with privileges and responsibilities. That they can stumble and the group will be there to break the fall. That what happens to one member of the group affects them all. That no one stands alone, nor would they want to.

Group loyalty is utterly important in Chile, and any adult will have concentric circles of participation in and responsibility toward the groups he or she has formed over the course of a lifetime.

Family comes first, of course. It is the inner circle, the core of one’s being, the nucleus of the group. And that comes with Sunday dinners (no excuses), inter-generational birthday parties til 2 AM, full-clan vacations, cousins as best friends, enormous weddings with all 500 members of the extensions of the extensions of the extended families of both bride and groom, and so on.

Then comes school. Children begin kindergarten (even pre-K) together and remain in the same group of 20 or 30 or 40 kids until they graduate together 13 years later. That’s thirteen years of birthday parties, class outings, shared trials, tribulations, and mutual personality shaping. They are not only painstakingly molded and tightly bonded, but their families are as well. And while they may or not be truly friends at the end, their lives are intertwined forever. Social networking par excellenceno Facebook required.

Then on to college. More group indoctrination. Everyone in the same degree program takes all the same courses in the same order from beginning to end. Monday 10 AM. Biology. Wednesday 4 PM, Intro to Physics. Friday 9PM, party at Pablo’s. Another tight group is formed.

And then marriage, an intersection of two social circles and the formation of a new one. Let the circle be unbroken. Life goes on. And that gringa friend… really nice, an interesting person… let’s get together sometime… but oh. Friday is my cousin’s birthday. Saturday? Sorry, my niece’s christening. On Sunday we always go to my grandmother’s house. Monday? I told my mother I’d go shopping with her. Tuesday? Getting together with friends from high school. Wednesday? Taking my uncle’s dog to the vet. Thursday? Parent-teacher night at my kids’ school. Friday? The whole family is going to the beach for the weekend.

 See what I mean? Dance card’s full…


24 responses to “The Dance Card’s Full: Group Loyalty in Chile

  1. This is a really interesting take on the foreigner-Chilean friendship thing. I think you’re right on about the whole bonding thing and the loyalty to all these different groups, though I don’t think this, in the form of “no time”, is the pure/only reason for the difficulty or lack of friendships formed between the two groups (as most things usually are a result of a number of factors).

    Someone my dad’s age told me last week that every single year they have a get together reunion for his high school class. One of the guys has since moved to the US and all the Chileans pitch in to fly him back to Chile for that weekend!

  2. La Gringa/Margaret

    Hi Lydia- fast response!! Of course it can’t all be simplified into just one simple reason; there are plenty of nuances… and there’s plenty of material for lots more posts (I have a few up my sleeve!) but we seem to have a much more permeable and open approach to forming new friendships than most people here seem to. I have actually heard people say, “No, I don’t want to meet anyone new, I know too many people already.” Implying that they were not able to keep up with their current social obligations and meeting someone new would incur even more.

  3. Wow. Right on. I think that although sometimes Chileans drift apart from their high school friends, there is this intense loyalty that will always bind them together. They might only see each other once a year, if that, but they are still the bestest and closest of friends. I recently voiced a somewhat negative opinion about a friend’s high school friend, and even though he agreed with me, he would never stop being her friend, because, and I quote, he’s been her friend his whole life.

  4. La Gringa/Margaret

    Right–bound for life! Like Lydia’s comment about class reunions… And, by the way, they do NOT include spouses! I once made the mistake of asking why not, and everyone looked at me like I was nuts!! It’s a “members only” kind of thing!

  5. Wonderful, insightful, eye-opening post. Thanks!

  6. nice blog, greetings from rancagua

  7. An excellent post and analysis! What you have written is a very accurate portrayal of Chilean social circles in my opinion (I have been here since 1997).
    My wife has school friends that date back to when she first entered school and almost thirty years later they still hang out.
    The part about “Friday is my cousin’s birthday. Saturday? Sorry, my niece’s christening…” made me laugh because it is SO true!
    Keep up the great posts!

  8. La Gringa/Margaret

    Thanks! And yeah, that whole living the group hug thing sure took a long time to get used to at first!

  9. Here a Chilean raising his hand to say: right on, lady! now that you mention it, I can see it quite clearly. I would add a darker note though: an additional (and mostly uncosncious) reason for not letting gringos in is the fact that they will leave: we hate to invest in a relationship and have it be broken up later. We’re in an island here, and people don’t move about as much as in the U.S. . We’re not as used to having good friends leave and not see them often anymore.

    This reminds me of an article by Patricio Navia where he mentions how when he graduated, his closest high school mate in the U.S. said goodbye, “have a great life”, and he never saw him again. Really incomprehensible from a Chilean point of view.

  10. PS: have you noticed what a deep insult it is to call someone an “individualist” in Chile?

  11. La Gringa/Margaret

    JJ- thanks for your comments… and yes, believe me, I really DO understand what “individualist” means here! it’s pretty much along the lines of selfish and egotistical, which is certainly NOT the sense that most gringos would give it!
    About the Patricio Navia article… I think that would certainly surprise anyone… the “have a nice life” comment is pretty hard anywhere I think… as in- so long, I have no desire to see you ever again (gulp!)

  12. Of course this is completely right-on. And it explains why most of my Chilean friends are somehow atypical, noncustodial mothers, gay, not from Santiago, single and childfree into their later years, or some combination. These are the people who have room for someone who hasn’t known them since they were five. Another thing you hint at (I think), is that the group mentality means that if you don’t have a group (i.e., you’ve somehow managed to alienate or lose your group), you’re in deep trouble. It’s not like the United States, where you can find new people, and create a new social reality. Because if we think it’s hard for foreigners to make new friends, we should try being Chilean for a minute.

    Great stuff. Can’t wait to keep reading.

  13. Well, thanks for the credit, but even though I don’t think I really did touch on the flip side, I agree with you… a faulty social network can be pretty rattling… it must be like walking the high wire and suddenly realizing that the net is gone!
    Your other point about your atypical friends also goes for those of us who marry Chileans. I suspect that a survey would show that most us us marry Aypical Chileans! (I know I did!)

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  17. Interesting blog
    My experience is the opposite.
    I am Chilean living in USA with a gringo husband. His family is adorable nice, very much in trying to make me feel good.
    But my Husband ‘s female friends are a little hard calling me the “Yes woman” saying that my husband got a “Yes” woman by mail. Been a latin woman they think I am maid, cook, gardener, servant with benefits. They believe I have no education, no preparation at all. Even saying that he married me because I do not have a voice like american woman do, so he can control me… etc, etc…
    My group of friends are mainly europeans and latin people married with americans.

    Lots of american ladies can not take that their boys are getting extrangeras as girls friends, and wife more and more. My husband male friends always ask me if I have a single sister or single female friends in Chile… I just smile…

    It haven’t been easy in a female social level… It had been wonderful in a male social level, lots of complements on how good we are to each other, and how good I do take care of my husband, we have a nany, a gardener. Living in USA like it is in Chile.

    This note does not mean that we Chilean woman are better than American, it is just to tell my story. It is a lot of more anegdotas to write.

    We are extrangeras … living and learning from the good the bad and the ok



  18. Hi Lia-
    Thanks for your comments. Sorry I didn’t see this earlier (I’ve been traveling).
    It’s very interesting to see your side of the story… ever considered writing a blog about your experience? I’d love to read your anecdotes on life as a Chilena in the US!

  19. Hola Margaret…
    It’s funny, I was out of town also…
    No, No he considerado escribir un blog, no creo que lo haga, yo te puedo contar a ti y tu puedes comparar, si lo deseas.
    Yo tomo las cosas con andina, conoces esa exprecion?
    Yo siento que se sienten ( ladys) un poco intimidadas, ademas las que han sido un poquito agresivas son solteras, no decir solteronas en busca de una pareja, y ellas no ven como un gringuito se fija en esta latina , jajaja… muchas ni si quiera me conocian, capaz tenian una imagen de una indiesita con trenzas lol! y les salio esta latina fotografa, artista, blanca, poliglota.
    Vivir en otra sociedad es entretenido, el descubrir cosas nuevas es algo diario, logico existen cosas que no van conmigo y otras chocantes.
    Lei varios comentarios en tu blog y me impresiono el de la Sra Solange, si yo tambien me he impactado con esas exeriencias, y mas aun con hijos debe ser desesperante, las cosas son mas abiertas aqui.
    Con lo de la comida no tengo problema, el peanut butter no me gusta, prefiero manjas jejeje. Todo se come con la mano, al comienzo me comia mi sandwish con tenedor y cuchillo, me senti tan mal, todos me miraban raro.
    En lo social, cuando a uno lo invitan a cenar uno practicamente se atiende solo, y con horario. es diferente. Es mas personalizado, e individualista. Nosotros en Chile somos mas socialistas, mucho para afuera con el clan …
    Nosotros como pareja hemos adoptado las dos culturas a nuestra conveniencia.
    A mi marido le encanta mi famila porque lo regalonean y atienden, y con nanny. Esa parte a el le gusto muchisimo.
    En fin Margaret, muchas experiencias, hay que tomar lo que ha uno le gusta y ni preocuparse de lo de mas, no vale la pena.
    Nosotros con nuestro colador grande, hemos formado un grupo muy lindo e internacional.
    Felices fiestas Margaret.

  20. Hola Lia!
    Bueno, si no quieres hacer un blog, yo feliz de recibir tus comentarios aquí! Me gusta mucho cuando los demás comparten sus experiencias para que todos tengamos una visión más holística/universal/completa de ese mundo en que vivimos.
    ¿Tomar las cosas con andina? No- no conozco la expresión… ¿qué significa?
    Extraña las cosas que pasen entre mujeres. Yo siempre he sentido que las gringas somos más abiertas y parece que las chilenas piensen que ELLAs son más abiertas… capaz que es cosa de tener diferentes códigos de comportamiento y que cada una sea enchufada en su sistema natal y no cachamos bien el otro sistema!
    Me reí con lo de comer con manos o tenedor… En Alemania me daba cuenta que yo comía pizza con mi mano y todos los demás (tanto alemanes como chilenos) usaban tenedor. Me gustaría saber cómo la comen los italianos, porque a mi me parece la comida perfecta para comer en mano!
    Bueno, Lia, espero que volverás a leer el blog y dejar tus comentarios!
    Felices fiestas para ti también!

  21. Margaret,
    Todos estamos ocupados con estas fiestas …
    Me lo tomo con Andina, significa me lo tomo con calma.
    Yo creo que me exprese mal en algun punto yo no quise decir que las Chilenas son mas fuertes, la verdad es que es muy dificil generalizar.
    He venido a USA por mucho tiempo, vine de jovencita al College y encontre que las Gringas eren muy independientes, hacian de todo, que admiracion mas grande!, cocinan, estudian, cuidan de los hijos, limpian, hacen el jardin. Nosotras estamos muy mal criadas, siempre tenemos ayuda en casa, alguien que limpia por nosotros, cocina por nosotros, ayuda con los hijos, etc..
    Me pasaron cosas muy divertidas al comienzo, tratando de hacer todo sola, no tenia otra opcion.
    Cuando volvi a Chile fue un descanzo y a la vez ver lo mal criadas que somos y en ocaciones nos ahogamos en un vaso con agua.
    En todo esto lo mas importante para mi es que las dos familias nos quieren y repetan, me explico la familia de mi marido me quiere mucho y me concideran en todo, y mi familia adora a mi gringuito, lo encuentran tan buena persona.
    Los comentarios de las otras Sras no son importante, es solo inseguridad departe de ellas.
    Nosotros construimos nuestro mundo multicultural aqui en casa, es como tomar lo bueno de las dos culturas y disfrutarlas.
    Gracias por responder Margaret, imagino que con tu viaje y las fiestas estaras muy ocupada.
    Muchas felicidades mucho amor paz y prosperidad para ti, familia y amistades.

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  23. This was so interesting and explained so well. The comparison and contrast of how Americans vs Chileans, (and probably many Latin Americans), are raised is so different. It’s easy to see why a gringo would get their feelings hurt and assume they’re being avoided – to wonder what is wrong with them and why they can’t break into the circle and make Chilean friends.

    While I’ve traveled abroad, I’ve never lived abroad – so I appreciate the insight in this post which probably took quite a bit of immersion before this conclusion was reached.

  24. Hi Tracy–thanks, and yes, it did take a while to come to this conclusion–it may need further fine tuning, but I think it’s on the right track! Do you see this with your husband and his family?

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