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Expat Exchange - Culture Shock in Colombia
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Culture Shock in Colombia

By Betsy Burlingame

Colombian Visa Services
Colombian Visa Services

Summary: If you're planning a move to Colombia, or have recently settled there, it's natural to encounter some culture shock as you adjust to your new surroundings. Our insightful article is designed to help you navigate this transition smoothly. It offers practical tips and draws on the experiences of fellow expats who have successfully embraced the cultural nuances of Colombia.

Welcome to the vibrant and diverse world of Colombia! As you prepare for your move, it's natural to anticipate the excitement and challenges that come with adapting to a new culture. Colombia is a country rich in tradition, with a warm and welcoming spirit that is sure to captivate you. However, like any significant change, moving to Colombia can bring about a degree of culture shock. Understanding what to expect and how to navigate these new experiences will help you settle in and embrace your new home with confidence.

1. Understanding Culture Shock in Colombia

When you first arrive in Colombia, you'll likely go through various stages of culture shock. Initially, the honeymoon phase will have you enamored with the country's beauty and hospitality. As time goes on, differences in social norms and daily life may lead to frustration or confusion. It's important to remember that this is a natural part of the adjustment process. Gradually, you'll acclimate to the local customs and find your rhythm in Colombian society. Patience and an open mind are key to overcoming these initial hurdles.

2. Language Barrier Challenges

Spanish is the heart of communication in Colombia, and not being fluent can indeed present challenges. However, Colombians are generally patient and appreciative of any effort to speak their language. You'll find that immersing yourself in daily conversations, from market haggling to friendly chats with neighbors, will rapidly improve your language skills. Additionally, many locals are eager to practice English, creating a mutual learning opportunity. Language exchange meetups and Spanish classes are also widely available to help you along your linguistic journey.

3. Top Cultural Faux Pas by Expats

  1. Ignoring Local Greetings: Colombians are warm and polite, often greeting with a handshake or a cheek kiss. Neglecting to return these greetings can come off as rude.
  2. Disrespecting Religious Traditions: With a predominantly Catholic population, religious events and traditions are taken seriously. Show respect, even if you don't share the same beliefs.
  3. Being Impatient: The pace of life in Colombia can be more relaxed than what you're used to. Showing frustration or impatience is considered impolite.
  4. Misunderstanding Informality: While Colombians are friendly, there's a level of formality in terms of addressing people with proper titles and manners, especially in business settings.
  5. Overlooking Local Cuisine Etiquette: Food is a significant part of Colombian culture. Refusing a dish or criticizing local food can be seen as offensive.

4. Expat Advice on Culture Shock

Long-term expats in Colombia often emphasize the importance of embracing the local lifestyle. One American expat shared how joining a local salsa class not only helped her make friends but also deepened her appreciation for Colombian music and dance. Another expat from Canada recommended attending local festivals and events to better understand and enjoy the rich cultural tapestry of the country. Many also suggest volunteering or participating in community activities as a way to connect with locals and give back. Above all, expats advise keeping a sense of humor and humility - learning to laugh at your own mistakes is a universal way to bridge cultural gaps.

As you embark on your Colombian adventure, remember that culture shock is a temporary phase on the path to becoming a well-adjusted and happy resident. With time, the country's rhythms will become second nature, and you'll find yourself feeling right at home in the heart of South America.

"No, really there are far more similarities between the USA and Colombia than differences," said one expat living in Villavicencio.

"After a good month I almost decided to leave because a lot of Colombians gave me the feeling that they see a Gringo as some sort of money-for-the-taking-possibility... Later, I realised that my own behaviour caused most of it. Waving with money is not cool over here," wrote a member in Medellin.

"Yes, when you first arrive and your are treated like a rich gringo, a walking cash machine... Now after 8 years I notice racism and resentment of foreigners and thjey will never treat me as anything more than a gringo," commented one expat who made the move to Buga.

"Can I get away without saying anything here? I'm not sure there is anything I appreciate," said one expat living in Villavicencio.

"Lots of really friendly people in Colombia, If you are lost you must not be surprised if someone escorts you for half an hour to take you where you wanted to go," wrote a member in Medellin.

"The local and pretty much Countrywide CULTURE that I enjoy most is the 'MANANA' culture. I returned to the USA 2 years ago for a planned 4 month stay after 15 years here. After all my time in Colombia, I had forgotten how much of a rat race the US really is. I stayed for 2 months and returned to Colombia. In the States, you make a list of everything you need to do the next day and then you rush around doing everything on the list. In Colombia I make the list at night but in the morning I look at the list and say MANANA. Here, there is very little rush to do anything," commented one expat who made the move to Colombia.

"Primarily the language barrier, and second is the difference in which Americans value time much more than Colombians. Often I explain why we are impatient people, and why time is so valuable and we don't like to wait or waste it. I'm often saying that it's logical really, you can buy, find, replace, or make most anything but not time of course," commented an expat living in Villavicencio.

"Finding a balanced social network can be difficult when you only hang with the Gringos," said an expat in Medellin.

"Shops don't specially order anything in that they don't stock. People are overawed by officials," remarked one expat who made the move to Buga.

About the Author

Betsy Burlingame Betsy Burlingame is the Founder and President of Expat Exchange and is one of the Founders of Digital Nomad Exchange. She launched Expat Exchange in 1997 as her Master's thesis project at NYU. Prior to Expat Exchange, Betsy worked at AT&T in International and Mass Market Marketing. She graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a BA in International Business and German.

Some of Betsy's articles include 12 Best Places to Live in Portugal, 7 Best Places to Live in Panama and 12 Things to Know Before Moving to the Dominican Republic. Betsy loves to travel and spend time with her family. Connect with Betsy on LinkedIn.


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