Excerpted and adapted from the ebook “Cultural Dimensions of Expatriate Living and Working in Nicaragua” by Bill Drake.
The courteous, somewhat formal nature of the Nicaraguan environment strongly influences the style of holding conversations, giving feedback, and refusing or disagreeing with someone.
Some examples of occasions where typical North American directness can create problems in Nicaragua include making a suggestion, asking a favor, and offering hospitality. Nicaraguans’ responses on these occasions tend to confuse North Americans who are accustomed to more directness in their dealings with others.
Invitations to social events typically present potential for misunderstanding. For example, a Nicaraguan receiving a party invitation will thank the host for the invitation and probably show great pleasure at being invited–which most North Americans would take as an acceptance, in the absence of a refusal. Not necessarily! If there is no reason beyond the Nicaraguan’s control to prevent his going, but at that moment he really does not expect to go, he may add a cue to his enthusiasm, such as “We will TRY to make it!”, or “We will probably be able to come.”
Expat Voices: “I was surprised at how difficult it is to be socially active with locals. There isn’t really a middle class, so the upper class seems to be fairly self-contained, and the others can’t really afford to live the way we live. So we tend to hang out with other teachers and their partners whether they are Nica or embassy folk.” U.S. teacher, 2006
As the host you may be able to get further subtle cues if you see the person again later and mention the party. In any case, the host family should be prepared for whatever number shows up, from a fraction of those invited up to more than the number invited – especially a cocktail-type party where less commitment is necessary.
In asking a favor, say from a government bureaucrat or from a Nicaraguan associate, the best signs that a request will not be forthcoming are extended delays and references to factors beyond control. Your inquiries or other forms of gentle pressure are appropriate but strong pressure is not. A verbal threat to “go over your head” will only bring a smile of amusement and instant retaliation since it is clear to any lower or mid-level Nicaraguan bureaucrat that if you had any clout at all you wouldn’t be dealing with him in the first place.
And don’t forget, the person you are dealing comes from a culture that has been pushed around by Americans for nearly a hundred years, so a little pushing from you will only guarantee that you won’t get anything close to what you want.
North Americans who value directness often feel that a cultural requirement for this kind of indirectness is like asking them to be evasive, dishonest, or at least inefficient. But if you insist on being completely direct and try to demand equal directness from Nicaraguans you deal with, you risk being seen as insensitive and rigid. With experience, you will probably learn to pick up and give more subtle cues, and be more flexible, reaching something of a compromise within the system.
The “Lateness” Phenomenon
One of the most widely recognized and joked about (usually to the detriment of Nicaraguans) cultural differences has to do with the widely varying meaning of times set for appointments or social activities. A Nicaraguan who arrives within about 30 minutes of an agreed appointment time may not even mention what his North American appointee (perhaps you), sees as his gross lateness. Many new expatriates have had more than one dinner get overcooked in the oven before realizing that Nicaraguan dinner guests may arrive an hour or more after the invited time.
This behavior should not be taken as rudeness. Rather, it is simply a different meaning of the time that is set. For example, 8:00 means anytime between about 8 and 8:30 or so for an appointment, or anytime between about 8:00 and 9:00 or so for a dinner. A North American refers much more literally to the hands of his or her watch for his meaning of 8:00 (although essentially the Nicaraguan type of meaning is sometimes used in the U.S. for invitations, such as to an East-coast weekend party or western barbecues when guests are expected to drift in over the course of an hour or so rather than all show up at once).
Many Nicaraguans familiar with the (to them somewhat peculiar) U.S. passion for punctuality will arrive closer to the appointed time or expect North Americans to do so, but this is not always the case.
Finally, many expats who have learned to adapt to the Nicaraguan interpretation of time have come to appreciate the flexibility it gives them during the period before appointments.
In the next article in this series, Bill explores the general North American stereotype of Nicaraguans’ unreliability, and provides some insight into social classes that helps to resolve these cultural differences. Click here to read Part 2 of “Understanding Time, Reliability, and Class in Nicaraguan Culture.”