When we first moved to Costa Rica in 1999, my son Neil was 11 years old and my daughter Hannah, 15. In those early days, after coming home from a visit to the town center, maybe to the grocery store or whatever, they would complain “Dad, why do they stare?”
The answer was and is “because they are Ticos (Costa Ricans)”
One of the major reasons that I chose to move to a foreign land with my family was that we, as a family, would learn another culture & language. Well, I’m happy to say that it worked. We learned a language and a culture, but lord knows it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
It really helps to keep in mind the objective: that of learning a new culture. That way when things are different, we can tell ourselves: “that’s why I came here.” The problem is that sometimes different equates to strange and uncomfortable.
The eye contact thing was something that, for me, took a little getting used to and even more so for my kids. In time we all have come to appreciate it. In Costa Rica you always acknowledge the presence of the other person.
I think that my gringo, privacy-loving heart, is a little afraid that if I engage with this person, they will take a bunch of my time, or need something from me. I think that it was somewhere right about the 200th greeting – the 200th greeting that happened for the simple love of the greeting, that I began to accept it, and that’s it. Touch base, say hello, share a good feeling and move on with your day.
The joy of the greeting is something that I have definitely come to love about Costa Rica. The Tico’s are superlative in their expression of happiness at the fact that our paths have crossed. It is unthinkable that they would pass you on the street or enter a room without looking you in the eye and, at the very least, give an enthusiastic wave, but more often it is a handshake or a light kiss on the cheek – cheek-press-kiss-the-air. As a practice this is honoring, and it has the subtle but agreeable effect of making a guy feel like maybe he’s doing OK. I think that we could all use a little more of this.
The greetings are simple, and they certainly don’t need to lead to some involved conversation. In fact, it is this point that has really helped me as a gringo to follow suit and just greet all over the place. Greet like there’s no tomorrow.
- Como está?
- Hola amigo!
- Que tal la vida?
- Pura vida!
- Como va todo?
- Señor! (to a man – obviously)
- And then there is the simple “bien.”
This last one is, I think, unique to Costa Rica. It took me a while to understand its function since when I say it, they respond with “bien gracias”. So, I think what’s going on is that in that one word “bien” they hear “all good?” and respond with “fine thanks for asking (sort of)”. Whatever – give it a try, it works.
There is also the counter-intuitive greeting “adios”. “That’s a greeting?” you say. It can be. Try this, when you are walking along the street, and someone is coming towards you, just before they pass, look them in the eye with a friendly face and say “adios”. They’ll say it back so I guess it’s a sort of “hi / bye” thing. You both haven’t slowed down, you keep walking, but your day is just a little brighter for it.
Learning a new culture has been a life enriching exercise. I think that it has caused me to understand my own culture better as well. I wonder what it is about our U.S. culture that makes us a little leery of acknowledging the other person. Actually, when I visit the States, I find being back among my own kind to be refreshing. I am gringo and I do enjoy my privacy. So it’s all just fascinating.
I think that the Ticos really appreciate seeing our efforts to learn how they live and to make adjustments to ourselves. It is a truly unsightly thing to see a gringo in Costa Rica arguing with a Tico about some aspect of their culture that just isn’t quite like back home in the States.
If you think about it, when we see a friend that we haven’t seen for a little while, maybe a couple weeks, we actually do experience a heartfelt happiness at seeing them. In Latin America this feeling has an outlet. Look ‘em in the eye, smile big, make contact, let them know you you’re happy to see them.
Culturally, I think that those of us that live in the The Zone have an interesting opportunity. When I stop and look around, I see a young culture (not referring to age here). This culture is made up of expats, people that have chosen to move out of their homeland. This new culture enjoys some of these types of influences. When The Zone’s expat culture gets together, there is a lot of greeting going on. The Saturday morning farmers market in Uvita is a din of constant banter. Many of the conversations are sprinkled with Spanish.
Man to man – shake hands. You can add a left hand to the shoulder on this one for spice. Good friends frequently hug & slap backs.
Man to woman and woman to woman – Cheek press and kiss the air. This one took me awhile to get comfortable with, but now it is second nature.