As you settle into your time in Colombia, you'll most likely find local cultural values and social customs to be at once familiar, and refreshingly different, from what you're used to back home.
Colombian culture contains plenty of contradictions, which means it’s difficult at first to get a coherent picture of what life in the country is really like. But then figuring all this out is part of what makes the place so enjoyable.
To get really good at Spanish, you’ll need to integrate into local society, and this means getting your head round the culture too. For what they're worth, here are a few of my own reflections about the main aspects you should keep an eye out for as you move into this often unfamiliar world.
An upbeat nation
On the whole, Colombians are more open and more extroverted than their European or North American counterparts. People are generally fun-loving, friendly and happy-go-lucky in outlook; an attitude reflected by the country’s consistently high ranking in global surveys on levels of happiness (most of these polls rank Colombia within the top two or three most contented nations worldwide).
On Colombian nights out, dancing, not alcohol, is the star of the show
Probably the area where Colombians' enjoyment of life is most obvious is in their attitude to going out, dancing and celebrating. Nightlife in Colombia is infinitely more animated than the version I grew up with, and pretty much any special occasion is celebrated with great enthusiasm. Dancing is a central part of every party, whether celebrated at the family home or in a busy nightclub.
Almost all the music you’ll hear in the country – from salsa to vallento and from merengue to bachata – involves dancing in pairs and is an entirely social business. Head out with a group of friends and you’ll find that people rotate around dancing partners and, by the end of the evening, everyone has danced with one another at some stage.
Want to speak Spanish with Colombians as naturally as you'd chat in English with your friends back home? Well, you'll need to learn a load of local slang and expressions first.
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Alcohol often accompanies the merriment, but this is far from always the case; you won’t find the traditional gringo attitude of “let’s get smashed before dancing” here. Colombians aren’t self-conscious movers, and most will quite happily dance entirely sober (sometimes in very public locations). You'll be expected to do likewise.
On Colombian nights out, dancing, not alcohol, is the star of the show.
The national love of positivity also manifests itself in the intense patriotism of the population (especially in Medellin). As a general rule, Colombians like to avoid chatting about any negative aspects of society and politics with foreigners, preferring instead to focus on the cheerier aspects of their surroundings.
Colombians like to avoid chatting about negative aspects of society and politics with foreigners
Partly this comes from the understandable desire to fight against the bad international reputation the country has sadly gained over the years. But, it also comes from a genuine and deep sense of pride in all that Colombia has to offer. Expect to lose track of the number of times you hear people proudly boasting that the Colombian food, weather, tourist attractions (among others) are the best in the world.
Such is the level of pride in all things Colombian, in fact, that people sometimes make this type of claim without ever having actually left the country. But this sort of patriotic chat is not something that Colombians reserve for conversations with foreigners. Get two people from different regions of the country together and it won’t be long before a debate starts about which area has the tastiest food, the best dancers, the friendliest people, the nicest weather, or the best-looking inhabitants.
Family and home life
Though much of Colombia is increasingly modern, the national culture retains much that is traditional. One of the main areas where you’ll see this is in the strength of family ties and the persistence of traditional household roles. Throughout Colombia, the central building block of society remains the family, in both its immediate and extended incarnations.
Interaction with relatives is a vital part of everyday life, and family get togethers and events are a regular feature of local social calendars. The strength of such ties means that offspring tend to live in the family home until they are married, and will spend much of their weekends with their relatives. This is true even of university students, who often study in their home city and live with their parents throughout their degree.
The central building block of Colombian society remains the family
As a foreigner, you may well find this means that Colombians spend less of their social life with their friends than people do back home. Family generally comes top of locals’ priority list, while time spent hanging out with buddies is limited to a few hours at the weekends.
Another thing to note is that in many Colombian households there has been little movement away from traditional roles assumed by men and women. The most common set-up, particularly in rural areas, is for the man to work and cover the family’s expenses, while the woman attends to household duties and raising the children. Local women – and to a lesser extent, men – who are unmarried in their late 20s can find themselves facing ever increasing familial pressure to settle down.
In the family home, Colombian mothers like to spoil their children (especially male ones), who play only a minor role in carrying out household chores. As a result, don't be surprise if you meet grown men who struggle to complete a weekly shop, or cook anything beyond rice or an arepa.
A religious bunch
Alongside family values, another important cultural influence in Colombia is religion. According to one recent survey, two-thirds of locals identify themselves as Catholic, and plenty more believe in God. The presence of other sorts of Christianity, let alone other religions (or agnosticism / atheism), is extremely limited. Indeed, lack of faith is so infrequent that some find it difficult to entirely comprehend the world view of less religiously minded foreign visitors.
the large number of practicing Catholics does not mean that locals’ behaviour is always beyond reproach
The influence of religion is such that it even effects everyday language. During your stay, you are more than likely to hear religious-infused expressions on a daily basis. A few examples include: “si dios quiere” (“God willing”), “que dios le pague” (literally: “may God pay you” - in essence, it means thank you), as well as the perhaps more familiar phrases “dios te bendiga” (“God bless you”) and “gracias a dios” (“thank God”).
But don’t make the mistake of thinking that the large number of practicing Catholics means that locals’ behaviour is always beyond reproach. Indeed, finding ways to work around low-level regulations and laws seems to almost constitute a bit of a national sport.
Others have different vices. Plenty adopt hedonistic lifestyles, in which adherence to fidelity is, shall we say, not quite as strict as it could be. To the more cynically minded, it may appear that some Colombians look to religious practices as a shield for their misbehaviour in other areas.
This attitude is neatly summarized in the, admittedly tongue-in-cheek, local expression: “Él que peca y reza, empata” (roughly “he who sins and prays, breaks even overall”).
Much as most locals would hate to admit it, the country’s long association with mafia and drug trafficking groups has also had an impact on the culture. Linguistically, this manifests itself in “parlache”, a specific sort of Colombian slang which includes a number of terms related to the criminal underworld and the narcotics trade.
A long association with mafia and drug trafficking groups has had an impact on culture
Sadly, the history of violence in the country has also created a fatalistic acceptance of these problems as part of everyday life. For example, a chance comment in a conversation between friends that a mutual acquaintance has been killed often attracts little in way of surprise of further questions from the listeners. The normal and everyday manner in which Colombians greet such news generally strikes us outsiders as more than a little odd.
Another area in which the influence of the “narcos” can be seen is in the prevalence of plastic surgery. Such fashions date back to the 1980s when the burgeoning cocaine trade led to the rapid expansion of Colombian criminal syndicates. Mafia leaders during this period competing to demonstrate their power and status by surrounding themselves with ever more voluptuous women. Accordingly, many paid for their various girlfriends and “amiguitas” to have surgery in order to boost their own prestige.
From this fashion also emerged the phenomenon of the “prepago” (literally meaning “prepaid”); the word for a female escort who has almost always undergone a lot of plastic surgery. This phenomenon persists today, and has affected a far broader section of society than just those with links to the drugs trade. Colombia is now one of the top five countries globally in terms of numbers of cosmetic surgery operations, and has spawned a healthy trade in medical tourism.
Trying to understand exactly quite how all these different stands of Colombian culture tie together can be quite a struggle. Yet, rather than seeking to comprehend it all, my advice would be to just sit back and enjoy. For it is precisely this heady mix – of tradition and modernity, of hedonism and piety, of tragedy and celebration – that gives the country its real charm.