Nicaraguans are generally open, talkative, and hospitable. In most areas of the country, Nicaraguans are accustomed to seeing foreigners, but they are still curious and not very discreet. Expect blunt questions about your age, marital status, and your opinions about Nicaragua. The reaction is nearly always one of curiosity, hospitality, and friendliness.
Families live close together, often in small quarters, and the North American and European concepts of independence and solitude are not well understood.Despite their directness, Nicaraguans are prone to circuitous, indirect behavior associated with the cultural concept of “saving face.” When asked something they don’t know, people often invent an answer so that neither party is embarrassed. Be warned, this is especially true about directions and distances. Many Nicaraguan city dwellers are, in fact, recently immigrated campesinos, and they often bring their country ways and livestock with them to the city.
Anti-U.S. sentiment, in my experience, is rare since Nicaraguans are particularly adept at distinguishing between a nation’s people and its government’s policy. In addition, because most Nicaraguan families adore cable TV and have at least one relative sending money back from Miami, Houston, or Los Angeles, many are quite fond of the United States. The word “gringo” is used most often as a descriptive, casual term for anyone who comes from north of the Mexican border. In rare cases, it is meant as an insult (in which case, it will likely be accompanied by a swear word). Likewise for chele, chela, and their diminutives, chelito and chelita, all of which mean pale or light-skinned, and are in no way disrespectful. In fact, many cries of, “¡Oye, chele!” (“Hey, whitey!”) are used as much for light-skinned Nicaraguans as for foreigners.
The Nicaraguan family is the most basic and strongest support structure of society. Rural women have an average of 4-6 children, and families of a dozen aren’t uncommon. Urban couples, particularly in Managua, typically have no more than three or four children. Extended families—cousins, in-laws, aunts, and uncles—are all kept in close contact and relied upon during hard times. Families live close together, often in small quarters, and the North American and European concepts of independence and solitude are not well understood. Nicaraguans’ traditional dependence on large family structures mandates that they take care of stragglers. If, for example, you were stranded in a strange country town in the pouring rain, it would not be unlikely for someone to invite you into their home for coffee or a bed.
Clothing and Neatness
Nicaraguans place a great deal of importance on cleanliness. Even the poorest campesino with threadbare and patched clothing takes great care to tuck his shirt in and keep his clothes clean and wrinkle-free. Nicaraguans only wear shorts for playing sports or lounging around the house. Nicaraguan women dress the spectrum from long, conservative dresses to bright, tight, and revealing outfits, though this is less common in rural communities. Unshaven internationalistas wearing stained shorts, ripped T-shirts, and dreads stand out like sore thumbs, even without their trademark bulky backpacks. A little effort into your wardrobe and hygiene will go a long way.
Etiquette and Terms of Address
While Costa Ricans tend to gravitate toward the formal usted form of address among themselves, Nicaraguans prefer the friendly vos (second person) form with each other, although tú is widely understood. For travelers, it’s best to use usted until you’ve really gotten to know someone. The terms don for men and doña for women are used far more commonly in Nicaragua than elsewhere in Latin America, and indicate a higher level of respect or affection, particularly for the elderly, the important, or the wealthy. Practitioners of certain careers sometimes drop their names entirely and go by their profession. That is, it’s not uncommon to be presented to someone everyone calls simply “la doctora,” “el ingeniero,” or “la abogada.”
It’s customary to kiss women on the cheek when greeting, but women will provide the signal whether that’s appropriate by turning their cheek toward you. (This is less common in the countryside.) Men will offer you their hands for a limp handshake. When someone new enters the room, rise from your seat to greet them, and when you’re ready to end a conversation or leave the room, a friendly “con permiso” will pave the way to the door.
Concept of Time
Nicaraguan life goes according to la hora Nica (Nica Time), which means a meeting scheduled in Managua for 2:30pm might not start until 3pm, or an hour later in the countryside. Foreign travelers accustomed to la hora gringa, in which everything starts and stops exactly when planned, will spend their days in Nicaragua endlessly frustrated (and consistently early for meetings).
Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.