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Same Word but different meaning? The main sources of frustration between Latin Americans and foreigners are issues of time, ideas about work, and telling the truth. While there may be a direct linguistic translation for those words, a cultural translation of often more accurate.


In many industrialized countries, time is money and punctuality is a must. Being punctual shows respect for friends/business partners and commitment to the activity. Lack of punctuality indicates lack of respect and commitment. This assumption might not be correspond to the actual intention of a Latin American. In many parts of Latin America, life is not yet so predictable; communication, transportation, human relationships and natural events may act as obstacles. In fact, the general presumption is that some of those factors will always interfere with the intention to be on time, and is therefore already taken into account when talking about time. “We will meet at 14:00pm” can be easily translated in “We would like to meet at 14:00pm but probably some issues will arise and we will not be able to get together until 15:00pm, unless something really monumental comes up, in which case we won't be able to make it before 15:30pm or 16:00pm, without impunity.” By understanding that this approach is simply seen as more realistic, rather than a way to insult somebody, you will better adjust to the “hora Latina”.


A further source of cultural frustration surround “the work ethic” and “the mañana mentality” – typical questions you may ask yourself are “Why don't they want to work hard?” and “Why are they always putting things off?”. Our own countries all promote self-determinism: pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you are in control of your future, work hard and you will surely reap the benefits. Other countries, mostly the developing countries, share a different view – one's hard work can be wiped out by a natural disaster or the unstable governments. Though this may be changing in recent decades, cultural attitudes are built on centuries of events, not on recent technological breakthroughs.


Throughout Latin America and other developing countries, it is very common that the ones who work hard just to survive will never overcome that circle, and the ones you are not working hard represent that small minority that run the country. There is often no incentive for laborers and people on the low end of the employment ladder to put extra efforts in their daily duties, which may be a frustrating experience for someone from a country/culture that takes it as common sense that hard work equals results. Of course, this does not mean there are no hardworking and motivated people in Latin America. Education systems start taking into consideration the global trends and challenge the young people to be more competitive and critical. The key skill for you is to learn not to judge behaviors according to your own cultural perspective but to be open to understand the background of somebody else's behavior.


A cultural clash may occur when you find that somebody has told you what they think you wanted to hear rather than the truth. For example, asking for directions on the street – no one will ever say “I don't know” even if this is the truth. In most cases, people try to be helpful and prefer to give inaccurate information than saying “I don't know”, which actually means to them “I don't care enough to help you out”, a message that they definitely do not want to convey. Telling you what you want to hear is, in this situation and others, a way of showing goodwill to you, and can be equated with the “little white lie” that foreigners find acceptable under certain circumstances, except this is used in a broader range of situations!


Instead of becoming frustrated with cultural differences, part of your “mission” in living and working in a new environment, and what makes it truly multicultural, is to try to appreciate and understand the different ways things are done. You will then be able to step into the cultural mindset, and respond to events and situations from the perspective of a native. Success in your volunteer experience is about a lot more than just getting a job done!!

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