Span­ish: Ban­ter - A Pura Vida Life Skill


Howler Magazine - - Contents - by Sylvia Monge

Costa Ri­cans take po­lite­ness very se­ri­ously. Po­lite­ness comes be­fore truth­ful­ness, be­fore any­thing else you need to say. But if the lan­guage of po­lite­ness is their cul­tural ban­ter, then why is the ser­vice in Costa Rica so bad?

That's what I used to won­der un­til the an­swer came to me. It was “me” all along. It was my in­sis­tence that I was go­ing to teach Costa Ri­cans how to do things right. Now when I see new­com­ers bound into a store and go up to an em­ployee and di­rectly ask for what they want, I see my­self and wince. There is noth­ing — ab­so­lutely noth­ing — more an­noy­ing than hear­ing a new­comer tell us about how things should be done around here. It took me only a few years to be an­noyed by that. Imag­ine some­one who has lived here all his or her life. No won­der they looked at me like I was the jerk. I was.

Grow­ing up in New York meant not look­ing other peo­ple in the eye. We were po­lite but curt and to the point. No one likes an overly friendly per­son — what are you, from the South or some­thing?! In schools, we were taught to write let­ters and later emails with a open­ing line that should in­clude the point of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Get­ting to the point is para­mount in a fast­paced world of timeta­bles and dead­lines.

In Costa Rica, if I am pa­tient and give my­self the ex­tra time to in­ter­act with my servers and smile — even try to make them laugh — they have lovely smiles. I like to quip that lo­cals have a rest­ing bitch face, but when you en­gage it's like a tooth­paste com­mer­cial. I am for­ever amazed by lit­tle things like that.

As a re­cov­er­ing New Yorker this has been the most dif­fi­cult as­pect of as­sim­i­la­tion for me. Sim­i­lar to the way South­ern­ers or small-town peo­ple in the United States re­late to each other, Tico po­lite­ness in­volves quite a bit of small talk. Even in emails, get­ting di­rectly to the point is con­sid­ered abrupt and rude. I nor­mally write my email first, the way my New York mind was trained, then go back and add an open­ing para­graph of po­lite­ness.

When I first ar­rived here, my Tico hus­band started say­ing, “Let me do the talk­ing” all the time. My stac­cato, to-the-point way of speak­ing pissed off ev­ery­one around me and the ser­vice we got was no­tice­ably worse. It re­minds me of him try­ing to as­sim­i­late to New York, where he would drive lo­cals crazy with his slow, me­an­der­ing sto­ries.

Now I refuse to be in a hurry. I smile first and of­fer some ban­ter be­fore ask­ing for a fa­vor … some­thing I once would never have even con­sid­ered to be ser­vice. The Gua­nacasteco may not be quick with a smile un­til you of­fer one first. The smiles you get back are gen­uine, wide and warm.

Slow­ing down and tak­ing the time to talk to peo­ple who help me daily are the big­gest per­sonal changes I have made since im­mi­grat­ing here. In­stead of some­thing I do when I have time, if my sched­ule al­lows, I make time. I give my­self the ex­tra five or 10 min­utes that po­lite­ness and chitchat in­volves. No mat­ter how well you speak the lan­guage, it's the face-to-face friend­li­ness that is most im­por­tant. It al­lows for your blun­der­ing Span­ish to be re­ceived with a wel­com­ing smile, pura vida style!

Po­lite­ness is half good man­ners and half good ly­ing. Mary Wil­son Lit­tle

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