Category Archives: Manners * Modales

Flexibility & Creative Thinking: a 10-Step Plan to Intercultural Survival

Flexibility and its buddy-concept “thinking on your feet”: the keys to living in Chile.

Plans keep going awry? (always wanted to use that word!) Can’t figure out the rules? Wondering why it’s just so damned hard to get anything done around here? Ah! Culture shock strikes again!

Best laid plans of mice and expats…

(Sorry, couldn’t resist!) Many people–expats, exchange students, and visitors alike–trying to adapt to life in another culture often find themselves frustrated by plans that always seem to come undone, and learning the skills of flexibility and creative thinking can go a long way to making life much more comfortable.

It’s all well and good to make a plan, but you just can’t get bent out of shape every time your finely honed scheme runs smack up against some unexpected firewall. You’re playing by someone else’s rules—most of which are pretty seat-of-the-pants, not-so-carved-in-stone anyway, so get used to it. Keep your eyes and ears open, observe how locals handle the challenge, and just plain get over yourself.

And in case you’re wondering… no, I am not one of those goody-goody, smiley-smiley, inherit lemons-make-lemonade kind of people—although come to think of it, I could totally see myself putting the squeeze on those lemons for a mega-batch of pisco sours! I spend plenty of time spluttering and groaning about the inconveniences of plans set off-kilter or that have full-fledged belly-smacked into the trash, but attempts to salvage whatever mental health I have left finally led me to this approach: Why keep banging your head against the wall when you can step back and see that there’s a door just 2 steps to the left?

It used to drive me crazy to be invited to do something only to discover that the plans had changed midstream and we’d ended up someplace completely different. I thought it was my lack of language (I could have SWORN he said we were going to Ivan’s house… why are we at this bar?). But no; just a last-minute change of plans. Or—for you English teachers out there—how about all the time you spend preparing a lesson plan only to hear your private student say (upon arrival) “oh, sorry, I can’t meet with you today, please have a class with my secretary.” Um… teaching what, might I ask? Or, you have a business meeting scheduled with someone at 11:00 AM, they keep you waiting til 1:00, and then you discover they’ve gone to lunch? OK, that one was just plain rude any way you look at it, but you get the picture.

So what to do… You could pitch one whopper of a fit—and sometimes it is completely warranted and just plain feels good to get it all out there… alright, go ahead, you’ll feel better for a little while, but it’s going to happen again and all that blustering fit-babble loses its power after a while, so how do you get ready for NEXT time? (Ah, caught that, did you? Yes, there will be a next time–it’s something hard-wired into the respective cultural motherboards).

10 Steps to Intercultural Survival

1-     Be flexible.

2-     Believe in Murphy’s Law. If there’s a monkey wrench in the vicinity, it will, more often than not, find a way into your plans.

3-     Develop the ability to think on your feet. Having a Plan B isn’t enough, be prepared to invent Plan G at a moment’s notice.

4-     Quit complaining. Nobody likes a whiner, especially an arrogant one.

5-     Be patient. Don’t expect too much—of yourself or of anyone else. It’s good to set the bar high, but you are not going to be fluent in language or culture overnight.

6-     Having a sense of humor goes a long way. You will make cultural mistakes, do and say dumb things, and on occasion, just be an unwitting idiot. You can either get into a huff, get angry, sulk, or laugh it off. Laughing–and learning from the experience–definitely works best.

7-     Remember that you are on someone else’s turf—it’s YOUR job to adapt, not the other way around. If “they” seem to be doing something strange, turn it around to see what it is that YOU are doing that rubs against the grain. It’s the old “when in Rome” advice. Doesn’t mean you have to force your feet into pointy high heels or bare your cleavage to your navel, but don’t be surprised when you don’t fit in when dressed as a gringa gone camping.

8-     Be self reliant. Be able to entertain yourself. You will probably spend a lot of time alone, at least at first until you get to know people to hang out with.

9-     Relax. Figure out when it’s ok to run late, when it’s expected, when it’s not, and when it is absolutely not ok to fiddle with the schedule. I’d say, for work, be on time—not that the other party will be, but at least you’re showing that you’re serious and respecting their time. For dinner invites—not so much. Getting there on time will most definitely mean you spend time alone with the dog while hosts finish showering, cooking, and last-minute fussing. Give them about 10–15 minutes fudge room. And if you’re trying to catch an inter-city bus, by all means, be there ahead of time. When it says it leaves at 10:15, it means it’s already half way down the block.

10- Remember the Golden Rule. Treat others the way you would like to be treated yourself. With respect, patience, and a bit of flexibility! It may not change their behavior, but at least you’ll have that little tingle of pleasure that comes with knowing that you’re the one on the more comfortable side of that forthcoming apology!


Pitbull free to roam: the flip side of the Chile’s street dog issue

Quiltros, mutts, and street dogs… we’ve talked about them a lot here at Cachando Chile, and while many people have expressed their opinions, one topic that has not been an issue is that of street dogs being vicious.

A Cachando Chile reader who has asked to remain anonymous sent this story about an experience he had with canine bureaucracy and lack of efficacy in enforcing the few laws that do exist with respect to pet ownership and responsibility, not to mention common decency and the ethics of being a good neighbor.

To be clear, this is not an issue of quiltros, strays, or street dogs, which seldom seem to be aggressive. To be sure there presents the issue of certain breeds that are known to be easily provoked to violence and whether or not they should be allowed in a residential neighborhood, but in the end, this is absolutely a case of a dog with an irresponsible owner.

I have a lab and walk him everyday. No one else in the neighborhood seems to walk their dogs, so some dogs get a bit huffy when my dog cruises by each day. Lots of dogs are out or get out as cars drive in and some days there are some gafuffles. One day a pit bull got loose and, with the owner standing by, it attacked my dog, leaving three wounds needing stitching. I complain then and again the next day when the owner comes by and tries to make nice. I tell him to B off and I want the vet bill paid. I never heard back.

Second attack happens two months later and only two wounds needed stitching but there was a lot more blood. Owner apologizes, refuses to pay up (now 150,000 between two attacks), and insists he was just robbed and needs the dog for protection. It doesn’t seem to me the dog serves much to protect him, and it has endangered the neighborhood twice now.

The parking attendant tells me the next day that the dog gets out every second day, and I am lucky I have only had trouble twice in various months of walks. The dog killed a poodle and attacked an elderly lady the year before. These pit bull dogs are cruise missiles on pattern from when they see the other dog’s neck until they grab on til death do they part. I tried a kids’ baseball bat applied to the dog’s gonads amongst other things and all to no effect.

The police tell me they will speak to the neighbor and that I have no rights without being able to show the animal escaped. One cop tells me to trap the dog outside his domain if the owner is not about the next time this happens.

The third attack happens almost in front of my home. I carry newspaper to burn (even tigers don’t like fire a neighbor has told me). No dice, the dog is too quick. Somehow high on adrenalin watching my dog dying for the third time, I grab the pit bull by the collar and throw him inside my home’s side garden and slam the gate. Now I have only to call the police to come and get him. No dice. They chuckle and say to take the dog back because the killing machine living in my children’s neighborhood is not my ‘property’. I asked the policeman’s badge number and am not given it.

The next day, with the dog trapped in my garden, I call the mayor’s office and e-mail all of my local politicians. No dice, no one wants to be an animal hater. I go to see the owner without the dog. The owner, a neighbor tells me, has gone to the beach for the week—ie., with his pit bull in the street, he left for a week. Neighbor confirms that he was worried but couldn’t miss the beach.

After no answer from the mayor I call and call the municipality until someone comes to inspect. They tell me they can solve the problem, but I have to take the dog to their trash collecting facility. I say no. The press arrives. After I tell the press to go away, I ask the municipality once more to solve the problem and take the carcass with them. And they did. And I am grateful to them for assuming with me the responsibility of solving a problem that needed solving.

I am sad for the dog who was taken into the home of someone so irresponsible, but my children are not going to be the poster children for a decent law about dangerous guard dogs. Full Stop.

Again. This is not a quiltro (mixed breed dog). This is not a street dog. This is not an abandoned dog (although we could argue that is it  neglected). Take a look at the comments that developed after the announcement of the Bicentennial Chile Dog winner, especially the one Marmo left on January 13 with these important links:

Conciencia Animal on Laws

and Chilean Senate news on the the Responsibilities of Pet Owners

And of course, check out the other Cachando Chile pieces on the subject, then come back and give us YOUR two cents’ worth. Got ideas on how to fix this problem?

See other dog-related posts on Cachando Chile:

Santiago de Chile Part II: Of Dogs and Men... (February 7, 2011)

Bicentennial Chile Dog: And we have a Winner! (January 8, 2010)

Lost Dogs: Quiltros  & Hero Dogs (November 25, 2009)

In Search of the Bicentennial Chile Dog (October 30, 2009)

Chile: It’s a Dog’s World (April 14, 2009)

5 Ways to Alienate a Chilean

It’s bound to happen. Spend any amount of time in a culture that’s not your own and your foot will certainly end up in your mouth at some point. Sports, politics, and religion aside, there are plenty of other ways to meter la pata in Chile. Over the years I’ve stumbled on a few (hard not to take a nose dive once in a while with that foot in mouth thing going on). Being from the “learn from my mistakes” camp, I thought I’d share. Continue reading

There’s a Chilean in my Closet!

Guess who's hanging up what?

Guess who's hanging up what?

Whoever invented the wire hanger should have established universal rules for using it.

There are certain rules that seem to have been established arbitrarily at some distant point in time and space when someone made the first move and said, “I’m going to do it this way.” If you had asked why, they may have simply said, “No reason, I can do it the other way if you prefer,” or “because I’m left handed” or “because my sister was standing on the other side,” but for whatever reason the reason happened to be, their method ended up carved in stone and we don’t even think about it until someone upsets the balance.

Like what, you ask? Like driving on the right-hand side of the road, unless you’re a Brit-influenced driver, of course, and therefore prefer the left. Or whether the toilet paper drapes over the top of the roll or dangles from below. Or whether you draw a circle by moving toward the right or toward the left. I’m sure there are plenty of other practices that we could all indulge any latent OCD tendencies in, but today I think I’ll just dwell on hangers.

In my orderly little pre-Chile world, we hung things up with the hanger hook pointing toward the back of the closet. Never thought about it much. Wasn’t much reason to. Until I noticed that the woman I first lived with in Santiago would always hang things up “backward” as in hook facing forward,** toward the door.  Personal quirk, I thought. Until I went shopping and oddly enough, most of the stores did the same. The sales clerks glowered at me for hanging things up the “right” way. And when I started sharing a closet with my husband, we ended up with a mishmash of hanger-use practices that bugged me to no end but that turned out to be a non-issue for the Mister… And in his world, non-issue is synonymous with unimportant… which means not much chance for change… and I have more important re-training priorities (like the fact that plates should be washed on BOTH sides, but we’ll save that for another day…)

** How often do we see backward and forward meaning the same thing?

In my northern-hemisphere-oriented brain, the outward hook maneuver does seem to be more practical in that it only takes just one outward-downward movement to hang something up, rather than the push in, up, back, and down movement required for the “Chilean” method.

It is in my nature to try and make sense of things. Maybe, I thought, it’s because we’re on the other side of the world—like that bit about water in a sink swirling counterclockwise in the southern hemisphere (it doesn’t, by the way). Not even I, as originator of that cockamamie theory could muster up much enthusiasm for it. So I’m back to arbitrary. Not a very satisfactory answer.

I googled around for a while, searching for an answer to my relevant-to-not-much-of-anything question, and although I did find a few versions of the hanger’s rather recent invention (might have been US President Thomas Jefferson, could have been someone else in the mid-1800s, although Albert Parkhouse generally gets the most credit for having designed the first wire hanger in 1903. Too bad he apparently misunderstood the directions on the patent form and signed away his rights to the fortune his employer then received. Parkhouse never saw a dime). I also found a nifty voodoo coat hanger and a slew of hanger manufacturers, but not one who would take a stand on which way the hanger is “supposed” to go.

So let me be the first to go on record as saying that hanger hooks should definitely point toward the back of the closet… In my world. Because I said so. Even though my husband doesn’t believe me… Or care.

May I take your purse?

In Chile, good manners and proper hosting etiquette stipulate that not only jackets are placed on the host’s bed, but women’s purses too.

Yes, really.


Note to all past, present, and future hosts: Please do not take what I am about to say personally. No offense is intended—at all… What you are about to read is simply a bit of mental musing on yet another cultural difference and my attempts to make sense out it all.

Here’s another one of those little things about life in Chile that I should be used to by now but that still takes me by surprise over and over again. The first time a charming new friend said upon my arrival at her birthday party, “Let me take your coat and purse,” I was stunned but still in the “when in Rome mode,” so I handed over my jacket along with all my cash, credit cards, checkbook, ID, and date book (no cell phone in those days)… basically, every portable thing of value I owned and watched it all disappear into her bedroom.

Purses-400As the house filled up with guests and the ratio of people I knew vs. those I didn’t increasingly widened, and as I realized that not even she knew everyone wandering about her house, the triple double dragon knot in my stomach (or was it a lark’s head hitch? or a Portuguese bowline?) just wouldn’t ease up: My Purse Was Unattended.

The evening ended well, and I recovered my purse with all its contents intact, but I kept wondering what I would have done if something had indeed disappeared. I’ve since heard many stories of the credit card that slips away during a party, that one check that goes missing from the middle of the checkbook (and later turns up cashed for some budget-devastating amount), the wallet that ends up $10 lucas lighter (and the accompanying feeling of doubt—did I really have that money when I got here? Very uncomfortable.

How embarrassing would it be to have to tell someone that something was stolen from me at their house? What is the proper Manual de Carreño (Latin America’s Emily Post) response to that situation? How should the host respond? Or maybe it would be rude to tell the host? But wouldn’t s/he want to know? Or would s/he feel like I was making some kind of accusation? Who is responsible in these situations? I always figured it was my responsibility to take care of my purse and its contents, so if I abandon it on someone’s bed for 6 hours, wouldn’t that make it my own damned fault? Too many uncomfortable considerations.

Please don’t think it’s a case of hanging out with shady characters. Not at all. I certainly trust my hosts, and I’m not so paranoid that I worry in small groups of friends. But parties, especially birthdays, tend to get very large here. People show up with unknown friends in tow. Teenage and college-age kids of the household often make an appearance with a gaggle of friends and friends of friends. It’s not at all uncommon to see 50 or more people troop through a house during the course of a 6-8-hour birthday party. And at every one of those celebrations, the host’s bed will be heavily laden with purses.

What's in the Queen's Handbag

What’s in the Queen’s Handbag, by Phil Dampier & Ashley Walton

I admit that my inner purse GPS has become far more advanced since moving to Santiago—a large city in which pickpockets and purse snatchers are pretty common (see Bye Bye Blackberry). In fact, when I go to visit my family in small-town America, where windows don’t have bars, cars don’t have alarms, gas caps don’t require keys, and purses dangle freely from restaurant chairs, they accuse me of rivaling Queen Elizabeth for purse-related paranoia, but honestly, I’m sure my purse has more valuable contents (are far less security) than the Queen’s handbag does!

Maybe there’s some secret Chilean purse-toting knowledge that gets passed down from mother to daughter; but the fact that I never had a Chilean mother would place me cluelessly dawdling behind the proverbial door when that information got passed along. Maybe all those purses contain no more than lipstick and keys, so their location is a non-issue. Maybe I need to check for a “Purse Content 101” course with a good section on party-going.

It is also true that I will usually want to get something out of my bag over the course of the evening. Although I will probably have no need for cash, check, or plastic, I just might want to get my hands on other practical items like tissues, cough drops, a pen, a date book, a business card, a cell phone, a small camera, etc. at some point during the evening!

So here’s my strategy. I hand over my jacket and politely decline the purse-relieving offer by stating, quite truthfully, that I will need to get something out of it during the night, and then I set it somewhere out of the way but within reach and get on with enjoying the party.

Good Customer Service- what a novel idea!

Today’s story is a tale of good service—in Chile no less!

Let’s face it, Chile is not known for good customer service. Oh, the stories I could tell—that we ALL could tell—about experiences ranging from frustrating to nightmarish… (For example, Lydia’s experience yesterday). Forget anything you ever heard about the customer always being right, in Chile, the customer—more often than not—is irrelevant.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I want to report a happy experience!

I had booked a flight with Lan Chile on-line and realized a few days later that I had a problem with it. I returned to the website, couldn’t remember my password, went through the normal steps to find the clave olvidada—no luck—it was registered under some long-forgotten email address, and finally I realized with a sinking feeling that I was going to have to speak to a human…
Knot in stomach begins here…

Have you noticed that most websites make it difficult to find a telephone number these days? Recent attempts to make human contact at Entel (a communications company no less) proved laborious (and in the end futile, because the person who finally answered could tell me no more than to come in and take a number), so I really dreaded having to try and go through all this with Lan Chile on a Saturday morning. I was sure that (1) I would never find a number, and that (2) if I did they would put me on hold for hours, and (3) when someone finally did pick up the phone they would tell me that they only provide information every other Thursday between 12:00 and 12:01.

I’m happy to report that this was not the case at all!

First, the telephone number is on the top right-hand side of the Lan Chile website! How logical! How helpful! Why should this be such a novel idea?

I called, and amazingly enough, an incredibly helpful man named Cristián picked up on the first ring, listened patiently to my drawn out story of woe and confusion, and then walked me through every step to correct my email and password situation, update my account information, give me the flight reservation number, show me where to download my itinerary, confirm that yes, I did in fact have frequent flyer kilometers accumulated, and answer every little question in between, and all with a calm, pleasant, and reassuring manner!

In a country known for placing insurmountable roadblocks between customer and service, where the company representatives who attend the public are often  indifferent, snide, and/or ignorant of the service they are supposed to offer, and then treat you as stupid to boot, or—going to the opposite extreme— are annoyingly ingratiating, it was just such a relief to get through a potentially stress-provoking situation and walk away calm and relieved with the problem resolved in less than 15 minutes with just 1 person and 1 phone call!

Kudos to Lan Chile and many thanks to service rep Cristián.

A Little Business Etiquette Please!

Forget punctuality… is a bit of honesty too much to ask? Chilean “Business Meeting Etiquette” has a long way to go!

I’ll admit it right up front. This post comes from anger. I’m not going to say that this is a “Chilean thing” and I’m not even saying that this is common here, but I will say that the only times I have ever seen this happen have been right here in Santiago. Just bad practice and an incredible lack of respect for others.

I’m talking about business meetings… how hard is it to schedule an appointment and stick with it? We’re professionals. We’re all busy, but c’mon, how about a little respect please? I’m not talking about people showing up a half hour late without acknowledgement (or apology) for the hour. You get used to that here. I’m not even talking about meetings that get canceled at the last minute  or even those that get forgotten (I admit my own guilt there). Something happened today that has me shaking my head and wondering how some people look themselves in the mirror…

Here’s the story. My boss (Chilean) and I went to a meeting last week and were told upon arriving that it had been cancelled. A pain, a long drive wasted, but it happens. The exchange of emails that ensued determined that the receptionist had been confused, that it was the meeting BEFORE ours that had been canceled, so sorry. Ok. It happens. We rescheduled.

A couple days ago we confirmed and reconfirmed the meeting for today. This time the receptionist informed us that the person was in a meeting and would we wait? Half hour. Ok. We had come a long way and didn’t want to waste the opportunity (again), so ok. It happens. We settled in to wait. Read the paper—half hour—discussed other projects—another half hour—so we ask again. “Sorry, should be any time.” So we wait some more and I’m really regretting not having my laptop along to be able to do some real work. Another half hour and now we’re playing poker on the blackberry.

Why would we wait so long? Because it was an important meeting to present an important project and we really think this place is the right fit, so we waited, I’m embarrassed to say, more than 2 hours before we finally gave up.

In the meantime our own secretary was calling their office to see what she could find out. It turns out that an hour and a half into our wait the managers had all gone to lunch and wouldn’t be back til 3:00… All this time with us (and a dozen other people) waiting in reception. Total lack of respect.

Back at the office, more email swapping… this time with the lame excuse that “I sent you a mail this morning to call off the meeting.” Does this person think we’re idiots? Apparently.

But we’ll go back again next week, smiley faces in place. These are difficult times. Everyone wants to do business and there’s just so much to go around… but what does it take to keep a little bit of common courtesy in place? How hard would it be to say to the secretary… “please cancel my appointments for this morning”? Why is it so hard to put oneself in the other person’s shoes? C’mon!

Driving Tips, Chilean Style (Manejar, a la chilena)

The topic is drivingagain… But this time it’s not my opinion, but rather a tongue-in-cheek look at Chilean driving styles written by Chilean journalist Marcela Recabarren and translated from the February 7, 2009 edition of Paula magazine (page 81). It’s always interesting to have some insight into what Chileans think about themselves.

Nuevamente el tema se trata de los modos de conducir de los chilenos, pero esta vez no es opinión mía. Se trata de unas observaciones de la periodista Marcela Recabarren, publicadas en la revista Paula. Ver la versión original en el primer comentario abajo.

Driving behaviors that show just how far we are from living a civilized lifestyle:
1. You’re in a traffic jam and someone signals that they want to change lanes.
Response: speed up so they can’t move in.

2. The driver in front of you lets another car slide in ahead of him.
Response: blow your horn in protest against the jerk that lets others cut ahead.

3. You try to change lanes, but no one lets you in.
Response: swear at the idiots who won’t let you in, although they can’t hear you because your window is rolled up.

4. You see a car with a “Student Driver” sign.
Response: speed past with your foot to the floor so that she understands how to really drive.

5. A pedestrian attempts to cross the street at a crosswalk and no one lets him pass.
Response: stop and let them cross, just to make yourself feel good. The effect will last all day, although you continue to practically run over every other pedestrian you see.