Learning about the local etiquette, customs, and culture of wherever you plan to travel comes with the journey. Along the way, you might recognize how all cultural “differences” actually stem from characteristics we all share. For instance, we all acknowledge time on some level because, as rational beings, we have uniquely structured our lives around the concept of time. However, the way we measure time in our habits and expectations varies quite a bit. For example, Japanese culture elevates punctuality as a cultural virtue. While in other countries, “being on time” is an entirely flexible concept, meaning that “being punctual” does not weigh as much. As is the case in most Latin American countries.
So, suppose you are planning a trip to Bolivia, in addition to loosening your concept of time, you might want to brush up on the following cultural considerations and etiquette. Because it will help you connect on a more authentic level with those around you in Bolivia, and in the process, you may even learn a bit more about yourself!
Bolivian citizens proudly tout their multicultural identity, considering across Bolivia, people speak 36 official languages. As a result, Bolivian Spanish (just one of the official languages) has become a linguistic melting pot. And this language fluidity is equally reflected in the culture and customs. Even on the international stage, Bolivia has represented their multicultural heritage with the 1993 election of Víctor Hugo Cárdenas, the first indigenous person to high office in South America. Then in 2006, Evo Morales became the first indigenous president.
Family sits at the heart of Bolivian culture, and you will most-likely meet members of multi-generational households. This focus on family and loyalty between family and friends means that a support system is never far. However, you will also probably witness the overwhelming consequence of upholding traditional family roles in how many men mistreat and disrespect women. Machismo has held fast in Bolivia, which means Bolivian women (many indigenous) activist groups are now demanding a change.
Greetings and Small Talk
When you meet someone new as you travel through Bolivia, how should you greet them? The first thing to keep in mind is eye contact. Ensure you keep steady eye contact as you speak and maintain a decent posture (something valued throughout the country). For a formal greeting with someone you just met, a handshake is the most appropriate. An informal greeting calls for a light kiss on the cheek (between two women or a man and a woman).
Expected small talk topics include Bolivian sports (especially soccer) and family matters. It is not considered rude to mention your personal life or ask about someone else’s because many people are incredibly warm and friendly. However, you should avoid mentioning Bolivian politics, poverty in general, and religion at all costs.
Not only is being punctual not necessary in Bolivia, but showing up on time is often considered rude to your host! You should aim for arriving about 15-30 minutes late; as much as it may pain you to do so. You will also want to stay an additional 30 minutes or so after the meal to demonstrate your satisfaction and appreciation.
Tipping has yet to integrate fully into Bolivian culture; however, it is becoming more and more prevalent with the growing tourist industry. So, if you rate the service as excellent, then a 10% tip would be much appreciated!
When it comes to Bolivian food, the ubiquitous Saltaña (a richly flavored, stew-filled empanada) is Bolivia’s national dish. Many Bolivians claim there is a right and wrong way to eat the salteña. The right way involves daintily devouring the entire thing without spilling a precious drop of its hearty gravy.
When in Bolivia, do as the Bolivians do! Begin by loosening that strict concept of time, and feel free to talk about your family, personal life, and loved ones. Avoid politics and business at the dinner table, and try to enjoy your salteña without spilling a precious drop. Most importantly, get ready for a meaningful cultural exchange against the backdrop of some breathtaking sights!