Acting Professional in Latin America Versus the U.S.

Story and photo by Daniella Emami | emami.d@husky.neu.edu

Functional, positive work environments are difficult to achieve regardless of cultural barriers. However, intercultural work environments can prove to be quite the challenge- and often pose the threat of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and hurt feelings. I have personally experienced all of these emotions while working in professional contexts throughout Latin America, and to be frank, Latino and US American communication and conflict resolution styles almost inherently contradict each other. While it is absolutely possible for US Americans and Latinos to coexist peacefully and professionally, it is essential that both parties understand the other’s communication style and cultural background. I believe that once these differences are acknowledged and understood, working in the Latino professional sphere becomes exponentially easier.

Through my past few years in Latin America, most especially in Costa Rica, Mexico, and Paraguay, I have identified four major cultural differences that significantly influence problem solving and conflict resolution- that I lay out for any Northeastern student embarking to Latin America in the future. I’ve also highlighted key words and phrases, gathered from asking various friends and past coworkers to describe the opposite culture’s work style. Vámonos.

Content vs. Context

When a US American enters into a meeting, we think of its content- what’s on the agenda, what will the action points be moving forward, etc. When a Latino enters a meeting, its context is much more stressed. The relationships between every individual in that specific space, and the more general social vibe are especially considered before even beginning to dive into work-related topics. What I have often found is that this fundamental difference in the ways we view professional gatherings can result in frustration and judgment from both parties- but most especially from US Americans. I cannot even express the amount of times a Latino has described US Americans as blunt, cold, or too work-focused, or the amount of times a US American (even myself) has thought of a Latino as ambiguous or straight up apathetic. Keep this in mind, and remember that sometimes you must prioritize your personal relationships over professional tasks to get to a positive end result. Keep a smile on your face, and remember that each and every relationship you have is considered more than just professional.

Latinos seen as: “Unclear and unfocused.” “Too social.” “Unprofessional.”

US Americans seen as: “Blunt.” “Aggressive.” “Workaholics.”

Time

Time is of the essence…Unless you’re in Latin America. In Latino culture timeliness is not as stressed, and time simply moves slower. This means late buses, late meetings, late coffee dates- just about late everything. Costa Rica,  a country I know and love, has the world-famous phrase of pura vida. Pura vida in action means a relaxed, tranquil attitude- even when it comes to meeting times and deadlines. Believe me, it is more than aggravating to prepare for a meeting, have everything ready to go, and then sit around for two hours waiting for everyone to get there. My greatest piece of advice when it comes to constant Latino tardiness is simple: be flexible. This is harder in action, but understanding that your constant sense of urgency is inherently not a part of their culture will make things easier on you. Latin American work culture is not lazy, it’s just slow. And if I’m being honest, we US Americans could learn a thing or two from this.

Latinos seen as: “Eternally late.” “Slower, calmer.”

US Americans seen as: “Punctual.” “Obsessed with the now now now.” “Impatient.”

Individualism vs. Collectivism

Living in the United States, most especially on a competitive college campus like Northeastern, we experience individualism like nowhere else on the planet. Even if not maliciously, we constantly strive to be better than the person next to us- most especially at work. In Latin America, one’s social network and collective group is the priority- not one’s own interests. People look out for one another, and maintaining relationships and group harmony is often placed above personal happiness or success.

In a professional context, this Latino collectivism comes with the establishment of hierarchies. And within these hierarchies, each tier is trusted with saving face for the tier above them. To put it simply: most everyone will have their higher-up’s back, regardless of if they are right or not. Collective peace, regardless of its genuineness, will come before being right or wrong. The challenge with collectivism to US Americans is often the lack of honesty and transparency- and feeling as though Latinos are being too stubborn or prideful. We often try to engage in “open and honest” conversations when resolving conflict, however, in my experiences these conversations fall ridiculously flat. Latinos will maintain saving both their own and other’s reputations rather than fully opening up- not because they don’t want to be honest, but because they are not culturally accustomed to it in a professional context. Get used to hearing a lot of “Está bien,” even when everything is not bien. Holding others accountable or calling people out is approached in a very indirect, circular way in Latin America- and as a US American, again, I recommend staying flexible.

Latinos seen as: “People pleasers.” “Loyal.” “Avoiders of confrontation at all costs.”

US Americans seen as: “Selfish.” “Mean to one another.”

Job vs. Relationship

As I have previously mentioned, cultivating personal relationships in Latin America is key. But it is important to understand that even in a work environment, social relationships will sometimes come before professional priorities. This doesn’t mean that your Latino coworker cares any less about their job, or that they are any less serious than you are. Their priorities are just different- and their relationships much stronger for it.

Latinos seen as: “Social butterflies.” “Fun to a fault.” “Friends before anything.”

US Americans seen as: “Impersonal.” “Unable to let loose.”