Costa Rica: Cultural Customs and Etiquette

A woman walks with an umbrella past a street mural featuring multicultural portraits.

A mural in San Jose, Costa Rica. Photo © Dave Brenner, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

More than one observer has noted the similarities between Asian and Latin American cultures: Both emphasize social harmony and saving face. To North Americans, who often value honesty above harmony, the Costa Rican method of preserving accord and personal honor can sometimes look a lot like lying. Ticos don’t much like our version of honesty, however, thinking it clumsy and rude.

When you’re new to a culture, what’s obvious to natives is not obvious to you.What you see here is not what you get. Ticos are known as “icebergs” because often only a fraction of their true selves is visible; it’s easy to crash into the 95 percent hidden beneath the surface. The smiling exterior of a Tico acquaintance might conceal many things. Attempts to set things straight—to speak perhaps uncomfortable truths for the good of the relationship—don’t find much favor in this culture.

Things do get communicated, but to the uninitiated, the language might as well be code. In the rare instances I manage—with the help of locals—to gain insight into problematic situations, from giving the wrong gift at a child’s birthday party to the proper way to issue dinner invitations, I hear comments like, “I thought you knew,” or “But wasn’t it obvious?”

No, it wasn’t obvious. When you’re new to a culture, what’s obvious to natives is not obvious to you. One consolation is that you’re expanding your awareness of your own assumptions as well as opening your eyes to the fact that there are dozens of ways in this world to solve the same problem. Keen observation, good will, and a boundless sense of the absurd will serve you well as you adapt to your new environment. The process brings unexpected gifts of self-knowledge as you discover what parts of yourself you’re willing and able to change, and which are more bedrock aspects of your character. If all else fails, remember the old saying: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Personal Space

You’re on a crowded bus, and you’ve been lucky enough to get a seat. In the press of bodies, the señorita in the aisle has her ample behind smashed up against your shoulder, the kid in the seat behind you is playing with your hair, and a man leans over, a few inches from your face, to open the window. No one says “perdón”; no one even glances your way to acknowledge that they are—by North American standards, at least—making serious incursions into your personal space.

Whether you think this normal, charmingly different, or downright rude will depend on your culture and upbringing. It’s one of my pet peeves, in part because my response to it is so very physical. I can explain away other cultural differences, but this one makes me feel like a dog with her hackles up. A local told me to think of it as a sort of compliment—a collective hug, welcoming me to the extended family.

This reduced margin can also be seen in the way Ticos drive. Costa Ricans pull out into traffic that would give North Americans pause, pass even if a truck is bearing down from the other direction, and cut off cars so closely you’re amazed that there aren’t even more accidents.

Early (and Noisy) Risers

Most Ticos are up before six in the morning, and they aren’t tiptoeing around, trying not to wake the gringos who sleep till eight. Señoras bang pots, kids squeal, and the buses that pick up schoolchildren honk at every door. Construction crews hammer away, leaf blowers are turned on high, and even the birds get up early to contribute to the racket.

If you can’t fight them (and you can’t), you may as well join them. You will be much, much happier if you adjust to Tico hours, which means getting up with the sun and going to bed as early as 9pm. Out in the country there’s little to do at night, and even in cities things are usually quiet by midnight. After the adjustment period you may even find that you really like being up for the sunrise.


Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Living Abroad in Costa Rica.


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