No matter where in the world you travel, you will discover customs and etiquette that are unfamiliar to you.
But if you truly want to get the full experience of the country you’re visiting, you’ll want to brush up on their customs and social norms.
This is specifically true if you’re traveling to Latin America and you’ve never visited there before.
The following customs, etiquette guidelines, and social norms will help you assimilate to the culture and ensure you’re a polite traveler at all times.
7 Customs to Know as a Traveler to Latin America
If you tend to be on time or early to everything you’re invited to, you might experience some frustration when traveling to Latin American countries.
Punctuality is pretty relaxed in most countries south of the equator, so you can expect events to begin about 15 to 30 minutes after the stated starting time.
Certainly, this is not true for everyone, so you might still want to arrive on time, but expect the actual event to start late. Additionally, when you’re eating at a restaurant, the service might be a bit slower than you’re used to.
Just be sure to pack your patience along with your other necessities and you’ll be fine. You might even become accustomed to the slower pace of life.
By the time you return home, you’ll definitely feel more relaxed because you’ll be forced to take things as they come while you’re in South America. It might be frustrating at first, but you’ll get used to it and you might just like it!
In general, Latin Americans need less personal space than people from Australia. They are likely to stand closer to you when they talk and even touch your arm or shoulder while you’re socializing.
You might be tempted to step away from a Latin American because you think they’re standing too close to you, but doing so might be considered rude.
Instead, understand that they aren’t trying to invade your personal space even if it seems like it.
This social norm may have changed a bit since COVID-19, but don’t be shocked or alarmed if someone you don’t really know stands close to you.
If you’re worried about the distance between you and other people while in Latin America, be sure to wear a mask.
When dining in a Latin American restaurant, there are some strict rules that you’ll want to follow so you don’t come off as rude. The first point is that the host controls everything.
You should never start to eat before the host says it’s time. Even if it’s past the stated starting time, the host will let you know when everyone has arrived and the meal is ready.
Leave the head of the table open for the host or hostess because this is considered the most honorable seating position at the table.
The seat to the host’s right is reserved for the primary guest, which will be the adult male in a family if there is one.
The person who extended the invitation to a restaurant is usually the one who pays the bill unless it’s a casual affair when everyone will pay their own bill. It is common even on a date for people to split the bill.
Moreover, the bill will typically not arrive at your table until someone requests it, as it is considered rude for a server to bring the bill before such a request is made. Once the bill arrives, it is expected it will be paid quickly.
Tipping is expected in Latin America and most servers prefer to be tipped in the local currency. You should tip between 10% and 15% for good service and more or less based on your experience.
Personal appearance is very important to Latin Americans and there are some taboos that you should know about before you start packing.
For example, don’t bother packing shorts because those are viewed as too casual, even for a tourist.
Instead, pack light trousers or skirts that won’t absorb the heat, particularly if you’re visiting during the summer. A plain polo or blouse is appropriate for around town, but try to avoid t-shirts, as again, they are considered too casual.
Sneakers are meant solely for exercising, so choose lace-up shoes or boots instead. Flip-flops are typically only for the beach and are otherwise too casual.
In general, Latin Americans take great pride in personal grooming, so men will shave every day to avoid a five o’clock shadow and women will do their hair even if they’re just running a quick errand.
Wild colors and hairstyles aren’t as popular in South America as they are in some other countries right now, so if you choose to wear your hair that way, expect to receive some whispers and stares.
Most Latin American people are extremely religious, so be sure to respect their designated worship times and if you attend services, dress respectfully by covering your shoulders and your knees.
It’s also not polite to talk about religion in most social situations, especially if your beliefs don’t align with the dominant Catholic religion.
Greeting someone in South America looks very similar to common greetings in Australia. You can shake hands if it’s the first time you’re meeting someone or you can kiss each other’s cheeks if you’ve met before.
It’s also considered a sign of confidence to make eye contact when you shake someone’s hand, just as it is in Australia. If you’re not sure how to greet someone, wait a few seconds and let them initiate the greeting so you can follow suit.
If you’re working in a Latin American country, be sure to greet your colleagues every morning, as they will wonder what they’ve done wrong if you don’t.
It’s also expected that you will greet people on the street if you’re the only two around (or if there are only a few others in the area).
Visiting a House
If you’re invited to visit a Latin American’s house, be sure to bring a small gift for the host or hostess. A bottle of wine or a box of candy will be sufficient, especially if you are joining them for a meal.
Most households don’t require you to take off your shoes when you’re visiting, unless, of course, they’re muddy or extremely dirty.
If you’re not sure whether or not to remove your shoes, it’s fine to ask the host or hostess what they prefer.
Always compliment the host or hostess on their home and express interest in a tour. This is just polite wherever you go, but Latin Americans seem to appreciate the comments even more than usual.
Visiting a Latin American country for work or pleasure is something everyone should do at least once in their lives. The culture is rich and vibrant, and the food is incredible!
Just make sure you are familiar with these social norms and customs so you can fully appreciate the time you spend in these fabulous countries.
As long as you’re not intentionally rude, you should be fine, but by respecting their time-honored customs, you’re honoring their storied history.
If you’re ever in doubt about how to act in a certain situation while you’re in a Latin American country, just ask a local. They are friendly and helpful and will be more than willing to teach you everything you need to know.