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Bridging Hemispheres

Understanding Latin American Cultures Through Study Abroad

Study abroad in Latin America. A decorated university building in Mexico.

Latin America is a multicultural and multilingual region where hundreds of different languages are spoken. Ethnic origins amongst the nations range from nearly all Caucasian (Uruguay) to the second largest African American population in the world (Brazil) to the largest Native American population in the world (Peru). Individual countries vary widely in terms of size, population, language(s), resource base, economic and political structures, and cultural characteristics.

Latin America is also a the fast growing region for study abroad. According to the Open Doors 2016-17 report, the number of U.S. students studying in Latin America rose to 51,513.

Cultural Characteristics

An awareness of the more significant cultural differences between the U.S. and Latin American countries can be useful to students in adapting to their new environment.

The following are broad observations regarding inhabitants of this large and diverse region. Needless to say, marked and significant individual, group, community, and national cultural variations exist amongst Latin Americans. The reader is cautioned against the tendency to assume they will apply to specific individuals. Nonetheless, they can be helpful for understanding the region as a whole.

  • Primacy of tight, intimate emotional relationships with family and close friends.

  • Importance of personalismo (personal, face-to-face relations) and establishing and maintaining warm human relations.

  • Stress on relational rather than independent, autonomous personal identity.

  • Beyond intimate circles, stress on desconfianza and difference.

  • Sense of life’s unpredictability and role of destino (fate).

  • Tendency toward hierarchy and stratification of social structure.

  • Focus on human differences rather than similarities; i.e., gender, class, racial, and ethnic differences among others.

  • Sense that differences make life richer and more interesting; openness discussing these differences and their internal and external manifestations; i.e., skin color, appearance, and other physical attributes.

  • Less openness, in general, in discussing more internal and personal issues beyond the circle of intimates.

  • Importance attributed to physical looks, clothes, style, dignity, social graces as way of indicating one’s place in society.

  • Less attention given to punctuality and “efficient and productive” time use than to immersing oneself into life itself.

  • Sense that one should enjoy time rather than manage it; emphasis on “being” rather than “doing.”

  • Primacy given to having time for personal relations.

  • Polychronic (versus monochronic) use of time.

  • Closer physical contact and interpersonal space use than in U.S. Importance attached to physical touch.

  • Different uses of public space in urban settings; i.e., Latin American cities set up to have people and stores close by, encouraging social contact; enjoyment of the “crowd” rather than trying to get away from it.

  • Different uses of space in homes; i.e., tendency to congregate in the living/dining area rather than in the kitchen, as often is the case in the U.S. The kitchen is often considered the area for the female head of household and domestic servants if any. The TV is often located in the main bedroom rather than in the living area.

  • Tendency for communication to be less direct than in the U.S. In some cases, this can be due to an emphasis on human relations and not wanting to hurt feelings.

  • Although subject to marked regional variations, communication with people outside of one’s circle of intimates tends to be more formal than is the norm in the U.S.

  • Class differences and hierarchy are reflected in language use; Spanish and Portuguese have various ways of manifesting social and class distinctions, such as the formal versus informal “you.”

  • Primacy given to the word as a creative symbol; stress upon artistic rather than instrumental uses of words and ideas.

Cultural Differences That Can Directly Impact Study Abroad Students’ Experiences

Gender Differences: A marked gender differentiation in Latin American culture can significantly shape U.S. students’ study abroad experiences. In a study of 164 females studying at 18 different study abroad sites in Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Latin America, Latin America was ranked the highest in terms of gender differential treatment.

This has many implications for U.S.-based study abroad students. In public spaces, female students may have to deal with piropos and should be aware that smiling and establishing too much eye contact with people they do not know, especially males, could unintentionally portray a message of interest. In more personal situations, they should be aware that, in general terms, male/female friendship is not as common as it may be in the U.S., and even if a female study abroad student tells a host national male that she wants to be only friends, he might interpret their relationship differently.

In dating situations in Latin America there tends to be more stress on exclusive dating relationships than on “playing the field.” Concomitantly, in encounters of a sexual nature, “no” may be interpreted quite differently by a Latin male, especially if the female study abroad student has either invited or accepted being alone in a place such as a bedroom, a vacation house, or the like. One of the major challenges many U.S. females face in Latin America arises from the proliferation of U.S. films that lead many Latin American men to assume that U.S. women are sexually “easy and loose.”

At the same time, U.S.-based students should be aware that the concept of machismo as commonly portrayed in the U.S. is an incomplete and culturally-biased perception of gender relations in Latin America.

Sexual Orientation: While there are marked national, regional, group, and individual differences among Latin Americans regarding views of same-sex relationships and transgendered individuals, in general terms there is less acceptance and more comments might be voiced in Latin America that could be perceived as derogatory in many parts of the U.S. today. In some cases, U.S.-based study abroad students have had a role in shifting perceptions of homosexual, bisexual, and transgendered people among host families and other members of the local host community.

Higher Education: In Latin America, university education is primarily professional preparation. This is also reflected in the Spanish language. Although there is some regional variation, speakers from many parts of Latin America use the same word, “carrera,” for what English expresses as academic major and as career. In addition, access to the university is generally viewed as a privilege, in contrast with the increasingly “consumerist” orientation that prevails at many U.S. colleges and universities today.

Teaching in general follows the idea of the professor as “expert” and “transmitter of knowledge,” and less importance is attached to student participation than in the U.S. The lecture format predominates, and discourse tends to be more circular and abstract than is the norm in the U.S.

Obtaining high grades tends not to be accorded as much importance in Latin America as it is in the U.S., and there tends to be little if any grade inflation in Latin America. Neither is there the detailed and rather legalistic explanation of grading policies that many U.S. students expect.

What can be viewed as “cheating” in the U.S. can often be viewed as “helping your friend out” with a test or paper rather than violating an educational norm.

Resource differences may also play a big role in the nature of information transmission and assignments, as library and other sources for written materials are often more limited than in the U.S.

Planning Ahead Versus Spontaneity: In Latin America, less emphasis is often given to planning ahead than in the U.S., and frequently plans are considered more as general guides than anticipated outcomes. This is due in part to the need for more flexibility and adjustability due to unexpected events or circumstances that commonly occur in daily life in the region. U.S.-based students soon find that they can’t usually “plan” their days in Latin America the way they do in the U.S., and that they must adapt to changing situations and expect the unexpected. They must also be informed that many things can take significantly longer to accomplish than in the U.S., especially activities of a bureaucratic nature.

Eating Habits: Many Latin Americans find it hard to understand the many different types of diets and voluntary food selection choices of U.S. students: vegetarianism, veganism, etc. Most Latin Americans are taught from a young age to eat whatever is put in front of them. Some may even feel that U.S. students stress what they put in their mouths rather than what they say at a meal in terms of social niceties and conversation; a host mother once commented that she wished that U.S. students were not so worried about being politically correct in their food choices and instead were socially correct in their behavior and attitude. Mealtime is an important social event in Latin America.

Alcohol Use: In Latin America, alcohol is not typically “prohibited” as it is for U.S. teens and young adults; neither is there the cultural inclination to use alcohol primarily for the purpose of getting drunk. Many Latin Americans find this aspect of many U.S. study abroad students’ behavior—which can be even more pronounced as a reaction to newfound freedom—to be puzzling, distressing, and inhibiting to positive relationship development.

Health Issues: Depending on locale, U.S.-based study abroad students may need to be more careful regarding what and where they eat and drink to avoid intestinal and other problems. In many parts of Latin America, more stress may be given to dialogue and personal contact, including physical touch, than to apparently sanitary conditions, which can make some U.S. students uncomfortable.

More by James L. Citron
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