It was February 27, 2010 at approximately 3:30 in the morning in Concepción, Chile. After a late night out to see Los Jaivas, a famous Chilean folkloric band, play at the city’s summer festival, I was sleeping profoundly in the attic. Suddenly the earth began shaking and fortunately, my husband was next to me and literally had to shake me, as if the trembling of the earth wasn’t enough, until I woke up and got out of bed. In that fuzzy moment, I was in shock. I recall my husband embracing me tightly telling me that we had to wait until the earth stopped shaking to go down three flights of stairs to get out of the house. Once we made it outside it was dark; there was no electricity or cell phone service. As we frantically escaped to a wide open field, we swerved in the car to miss a substantial crack in the road. Later on that morning we found out that we had just survived an 8.8 earthquake and days later we would hear that the terremoto triggered a devastating tsunami 20 minutes from Concepción.
Only hours after mother nature took its toll, outraged citizens and delinquents began looting in Concepción. President Michelle Bachelet hesitated to declare a state of catastrophe since the last time military troops took control occurred twenty years ago during the military dictatorship. Chaos and looting continued as residents demanded a response from the government. Subsequently, a few days later President Bachelet declared martial law with a curfew and shortly after the looting came to a standstill. During the aftermath of the natural disaster an unknown and quite frankly unfamiliar side of the nation I had called home for the past two years was exposed. This was a distinct side of Chilean culture I had not previously witnessed and bits and pieces of disappointment filled my confused soul.
Living in Chile gave me the opportunity to cultivate and develop various relationships through friendships and family. It also provided a window where I could observe even more relationships, both intercultural and among local residents. Through my US American lens, I participated in day-to-day customs with locals from daily routines to the ups and downs of life to important national holidays such as fiestas patrias, when Chileans celebrate their independence from Spain. Never had I experienced a natural disaster.
On one hand there was evitable pandemonium after the earthquake hit and on the other there were citizens organizing an emergency telethon, Chile ayuda Chile, for the victims of the natural disaster. Only a week after the devastating destruction of mother nature, Chile ayuda Chile, raised $60 million. Solidarity and the desire to help was present from the people in line at the corner patiently waiting for water to those who, after looting the pharmacy on my street, offered my neighbor baby food. Much can be said about a culture and its people in times of crisis. Never once did I feel unsafe in the sense that I might be physically hurt by others. In desperation to notify my family in the United States that I was fine waiting in line with many others in a similar emotional state, I was taken back by the kindness of one particular older lady consoling a young girl who was crying unable to get a hold of her family. It was during this moment, I realized the kindness and hospitality of Chileans that had been quite impressive over the past two years was still there. Momentarily it was hidden behind the limelight of the bunch of bad apples in mobs looting and rioting that shocked me and millions of others.
Looking at Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Model of Individualism/Collectivism, we can see Chile has a low index for individualism of 23, mirroring most Latin American countries. At the end of the spectrum, the United States has an individualist index of 91. Although the model is not always accurate, as individual personalities and sub-cultures within the national culture vary, it is still a valuable tool. One important point to keep in mind is that the definition of “selfish” could change depending on the culture. Edward Hall’s theory of high and low context cultures also nicely ties into intercultural relationships between Chileans and US Americans. The communication style of a high context culture does not rely exclusively on spoken words but also through gestures, expressions, and voice tones. Unlike low context cultures which rely on words that are interpreted literally, high context cultures are not as straightforward. Chile is a high context culture whereas the United States is a low context culture. Often colleagues or friends would tell me they would do x, y, and z today or tomorrow, si dios quiere, and to them it is more like a wish or a desire, which is common in high-context cultures. However, in low-context cultures it is considered a promise and verbal commitment that must be kept. A related and common expression, si dios quiere, which translates in English to “God willing”, is regularly used in Chile. Through this example, one can see how conflict can certainly arise amid cultural differences. Regarding cultural differences, another dissimilarity between US Americans and Chileans is the concept of family.
Since my first seven months in Chile were spent living with a host family, I learned quickly that one of the most significant relationships in Chilean culture is with la familia. Initially it was awkward cultivating relationships with some of the family members as they are not direct communicators. For example my first week with my host family I went out to an internet café and I lost track of time and missed dinner. I received a frantic call from them worried about me. They had expected me for dinner and I had no idea because it was not directly communicated to me, yet to them it was known and obvious. Sometimes I found it to be a guessing game trying to figure out why they reacted in a particular way and how I could better communicate with them in an appropriate manner through verbal and nonverbal communication. Although I didn’t know it at the time those first challenging seven months with a host family gave me a great deal of insight on Chilean culture that I would use for the next five years as I navigated through the culture. I could not have learned this if I had lived on my own. The lessons learned from those first months of mistakes with my host family became extremely useful collaborating with colleagues, and have helped me gain a better understanding of Chilean culture.
The various relationships many of us have in the United States with immediate and extended family are not as marked or clear in Chilean culture. Families are extremely intertwined and close-knit. Cousins are simply cousins regardless if they are first, second or third. My friends and husband always refer to them as cousins even if it is really their parents or another relative’s cousin. Additionally, it is not rare for Chileans to treat their cousins like siblings. In return, parents and relatives expect children and teenagers to spend quality time with the family by staying around the house instead of visiting friends. For instance, the idea of not eating meals together is quite absurd for most Chileans. Many have even expressed to me they would rather wait, albeit hungry, and eat together as a family. Visiting relatives stay over at the host’s house instead of hotels and hosts may even offer their bedroom to the guests. In the countryside, it is common for relatives to show up unexpectedly. Therefore, I learned that what I consider simple, mundane, and really an unnecessary chore of making your bed and keeping your room really tidy, are vital and necessary in Chile!
It is not surprising that referring to your parent’s friends as tía or tío (aunt or uncle) is seen as a sign of respect and a compliment in Chile. From my experience, I noticed that Chileans tend to have a different definition of the word friend compared to a US American. In Chile, friendship cannot happen overnight: it takes time to gain each other’s trust. In the U.S. inquiring about family can be a private matter. On the other hand in Chile it may be considered rude if you do not ask your friend about the wellbeing of their family. Friends are frequently invited over instead of meeting in a restaurant. The concept of socializing and expressing love and gratitude is shown though the time spent together. Chileans are not particularly fond of talking over the phone. Given that Chile is a high context culture, the atmosphere or environment where the conversation is being held is important. In the same vein, the concept of time is different; time isn’t money in Chile. For example, I learned that it can be rude if you are too frank and upfront with friends. It is necessary to gradually explain things and give time for everything. The same can be said when you are leaving. Telling friends that you are leaving and then leaving right away is not polite. Chileans will talk about leaving for a while before they actually get up and go out the door. Usually loved ones will try to talk you into staying longer. Whether you are considered a friend or family, both relationships share what Chileans like to refer to as el cariño chileno (Chilean affection).
During my time in Chile, I learned that there is much to be gained from building and maintaining intercultural relationships. Being aware of cultural differences despite how tolerant you think you are is one of them. When in doubt about the culture, I have learned the hard way that it is always a good idea to check in with at least one Chilean person about your experience and their interpretation. The Secretary of State, John Kerry put it well when he said, “only by immersing ourselves in each other’s languages and cultures can we truly understand each other and build the kind of partnership that will work for everybody”.
May all the victims of the February 27, 2010 earthquake and tsunami in Chile rest in peace.
About the Author: Jennifer Ramos is passionate about intercultural immersion experiences and promoting cross-cultural understanding through international education. She holds a MA in International Education from SIT Graduate Institute and recently relocated to the United States in 2013. Jennifer is the Assistant Director of Study Abroad at Methodist University (N. Carolina) and can be followed on twitter @JenMRamos and connected with on LinkedIn.