Tag Archives: manners

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!


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.

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.

Sage advice about the fine art of napkin use at the Chilean table…

Have you noticed that Chileans seem to have a thing about napkins?

I wish I had a picture of those funky towering napkin cones that are so popular in all Chilean soda fountains and sandwich joints. It’s one of those things that everyone seems to notice when they come to Chile. But truth be told, it’s been a while since I’ve given much thought to the importance of napkins in everyday Chilean life.

There’s nothing like a break in the routine to shine the spotlight on daily quirks. I just spent a couple weeks in Germany, mostly amongst Chileans, and the topic of napkins-or rather their scant availability-came up surprisingly often. “Restaurants are stingy with the napkins” they would tell me. “They’ll only give you one, and sometimes you have to ask.” In fact, at one place, the waiter came out with 3 paper napkins for 5 diners and was promptly sent back for 2 more.

The fact that it was an issue reminded me of my earliest days in Chile, nearly 18 years ago, when I rented a room from an older woman who fed me surprisingly well, although our differing forms of napkin behavior came up at nearly every meal.

Napkins were not considered a necessity where I grew up, but I was taught that when present, a napkin (whether paper or linen) should be spread across the lap, lifted periodically to dab the mouth, and replaced, out of sight, on the lap. During my first meal in Chile, I was surprised to see a neatly folded cocktail napkin (you know, those little 4 x 4 inch jobs) next to my plate. I opened it and placed it on my lap and proceeded to eat. My hostess became flustered–maybe even embarrassed–when she did not see a napkin by my plate and insisted I take another one. I obliged and placed it too on my lap. I figured, okay, so she only has little ones and wants me to take 2 for good coverage. She, on the other hand, could not figure out what I was doing with those napkins and actually got up and handed me another one. When I showed her I already had 2 on my lap, she dropped the subject, but made a mental note to find me a copy of the Manual de Carreño (the Chilean version of  Miss Manners).

Chilean napkin etiquette is amazingly specific.

Rule 1: All meals must be served with napkins:

I don’t think I have ever sat at a Chilean table that did not have a diagonally folded napkin at every place. Breakfast, lunch, onces (that’s afternoon tea) and dinner. Snacks too. They are often cocktail napkins (much cheaper than the larger dinner size) and almost always plain white (also cheaper). I’ve seen on numerous (admittedly informal) occasions a host tear the napkins in half to be sure there were enough to go around. And–I swear–I have even seen neatly folded toilet paper appear beside my plate because that was preferable than going without.

Of course there’s the material-paper or cloth-aspect as well. Let’s face it, cloth napkins sure are nice, but they’re much more bother than paper throw-aways (all that washing and ironing-yes, people iron here). Everyone I know here has cloth napkins at home, although they tend to come out for company, special occasions, or just before payday when the paper napkins have run out. In restaurants, cloth is a must for fine dining, while paper will do otherwise. In fact, my foodie friends use napkin type as a criterion for evaluating restaurants… heaven help the pretentious restaurant that skimps on linens.

Rule 2: Linen napkins go on the lap, paper ones on the table

And then there’s the whole placement during use issue. I bet I could walk through a casual restaurant and pick out the gringos by simply observing their napkin placement behavior. North Americans will have their napkins on their laps; Chileans will have theirs on the table. Ok, so where do Europeans and Asians stand on this point? (This is not a rhetorical question… I’d really like to know!).

As far as I’m concerned, napkins, paper, or otherwise, have 2 functions: spill protection and mouth wiping; but in Chile, paper is a mouth-only proposition. The flip side of this is that the paper types are left on the table-usually discreetly folded and tucked beside the plate-but queasy eaters have been known to lose their appetite at the sight of used napkins piling up on the table.

Side note: Soda fountain napkin cones

No Chilean napkin-use commentary could possibly be complete without at least a mention of the famous soda fountain napkin cone phenomena. Little 3-inch squares of 1-ply plasticky-papery material are swirled high in metal cones and left on the tables so that customers can help themselves to all they need. And they’ll need a lot. Since they have nearly no absorbency quality whatsoever, their only purpose is to scrape stuff off of mouths and fingers. Napkin cones are especially common in sandwich shops where there is goo aplenty and these things pile up on the table very quickly.

(Many thanks to Uwedoble (see comment below) for the picture of the napkin cone: http://tinyurl.com/napkincone).

Gringo Napkin-use Survival Strategy: get your hands on TWO napkins, keep one in your lap to keep YOU happy and another on the table to keep your Chilean friends happy…