One of the main traits of Guatemalan behavior is what is known as being en confianza. Attaining this level in your interpersonal relationships means having a high level of openness, trust, and comfort with those you are en confianza (in confidence) with. Once you have reached this level in your relationship with someone, you will most likely be visiting their home and sharing a few meals.
Confianza is just as important for making friends as it is for doing business and overall success in Guatemalan society. You can erode your confianza by displaying character flaws such as losing your temper in public or dressing inappropriately, but Guatemalans will never confront you directly. Instead they will do what is known as “saving face.” There may be a perceptible chill in their demeanor toward you.
Another player in the Guatemalan social lingo is the concept of pena, directly linked to the concept of saving face. To have pena is to feel badly, as in the case of imposing on your host or needing to say something unpleasant or accusatory. North Americans are very direct and to the point, which is not at all how Guatemalans are. They will go to great lengths to avoid the pena of having to tell you something or ask something of you they are not comfortable with.
North Americans (or those who have spent extended periods of time there) often find this idiosyncrasy quite frustrating. Vice President Rafael Espada, who spent several years as a prominent surgeon in Houston prior to being elected to office, highlighted this characteristic during an interview with Prensa Libre following his first year back in Guatemala. He said this face-saving mechanism, whereby people will tell you what they think you want to hear, was one of his biggest frustrations. Espada said it was hard to get things done when people have given you assurances that the wheels are set in motion, when often they haven’t even started what you asked them to do in the first place.
Guatemalans tend to use the vos form of tu (you), a derivative of the archaic vosotros now used only in Spain. This is particularly the case with two men of the same age or similar social standing. It shouldn’t be used to address a person of perceived lesser social stature, as it’s somewhat demeaning when used in this way, though upper-class Guatemalans tend to do it anyway. Stick to the formal usted unless the person switches to the informal tu or vos.
Related to the above concept of pena, keep in mind what people are saying in between the lines. Guatemalans tend to beat around the bush, so to speak, and you must use a keen sensitivity to the subject at hand (and the speaker) to decipher what is being implied.
Guatemalans might be a bit “touchy feely” by North American standards. It’s not uncommon to see two heterosexual male friends walking with their arms around each other. This is more common with school-age children, however. Guatemalans generally greet each other with hugs and kisses (or air kisses if it’s a stranger of the opposite gender). They may also grab your arm when trying to emphasize a point (I have a beloved uncle who does this quite frequently).
North Americans’ love of privacy might at times seem strange to Guatemalans. This is something to keep in mind if you are staying with a host family. What might seem like a normal degree of privacy to you may seem like seclusion and isolation, on your part, to them. Most host families who have had a number of North American visitors have grown accustomed to this.