Culture Shock in Latin America


Culture Shock for Prospective Expats living in Latin America (by Leela Gill)

If you are contemplating a move out of the U.S., remember that most everything in the foreign environment  will be different, sometimes isolating.  That’s what is meant by Culture Shock.

Wikipedi defines Culture Shock as the personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life due to immigration or a visit to a new country, or to a move between social environments, also a simple travel to another type of life.

The Transition Period consists of four distinct phases called 1) Honeymoon 2) Negotiation 3) Adjustment, and 4) Mastery or Discomfort.  It will take time to adapt to the good, the bad and the ugly.

Take off the rose-colored Glasses. Many online magazines about living in international destinations have commercial agendas (selling seminars, real estate and books) and therefore want to present only the rosy picture of a foreign place.  However, every place has its warts.   Foreign places are not all a garden or roses or paradise.  Paradise can be lost as well. One should be aware of the drawbacks, pitfalls and disadvantages to any foreign location and to balance those against the positive aspects of the destination and country.

Some marriages or partnerships don’t make it.   When a couple or a family decides to relocate to a foreign city to live, work/play,  invest or retire, they may want to make a pact.  One party may love the adventure, the challenge and the change and thrive.  The other party may be frustrated, overwhelmed and feel unsatisfied or isolated.  Or it may take one party a longer time to fully adapt to the new surroundings, language, customs and friends.  There is no true way to entirely prevent culture shock, as individuals in any society are personally affected by cultural contrasts differently.

Drawbacks to living in a foreign culture include:  language barrier,  information overload, technology gap, response ability (having a cultural skill set to work with), homesickness, boredom, frustration and impatience (hostility in some cases) with the cultural and infrastructure differences. When the internet connection stops working or works intermittently or extremely slowly, this can be very frustrating for an expat living in a developing country or Third World country.   Or it can be accepted as one of the facts of life (risks) of living in a foreign country to be balanced with the benefits/rewards.


I met a teenager Stephen in Tamarindo, Costa Rica recently who  loved being able to surf everyday and hang out with open-minded students at school.  He hated going back to a US school in San Diego for a semester, when his parents returned for business. He discovered that the kids are lacked imagination and immediately “labeled” others by dress and outward appearances.  These peers didn’t take the time to get to know someone, who they were on the inside, or what they thought, felt, dreamt about.  In other words, Stephen found them to be superficial, spoiled, judgmental, and insecure. He was so happy to return back to his expat life.


Things that you take for granted in the United States may not be available or function at a level to what you are accustomed to or up to U.S. standards.

Practical Advice for adapting to a New Culture:

1)  Move for the Lifestyle and Culture, not just because it’s you’ve heard it was a cheap or bargain place to live.

2)  Be flexible with your Expectations on Infrastructure.  Don’t expect US standards for infrastructure including internet connections, electricity, water, sewage, highways, roads, signage or quality of construction.

3)  Be flexible and tolerant with your Expectations on the People. People in foreign countries think differently than you about getting things accomplished, keeping appointments, time, and organization.  Latin Americans are not necessarily motivated by the same ideas as US citizens.

The vast majority of folks in Latin America are NOT motivated by money. Family relationships and any family problems take priority over earning dinero. Religious holidays are observed religiously, so there is no working on said holidays, even when offered double time or twice the pay.

4)  Learn the Language.   The locals provide color, humor and warmth to an expats life, but you must be able to communicate.  It is also necessary to function in the grocery store with the cashier, the bank clerk, the hardware store staff, the traffic policeman, the waiter or waitress and bartender, the children playing soccer on the street,  the teenager who comes up to you and asks you if you have a baseball, and so forth.

5)  Be Aware and Accept Differences in Cultures or Quit Whining and Go Back to Your Country of Origin.

Latin Americans generally are process-oriented and not results-oriented.  The sense of Time being urgent or the need to accomplish many things during the day is not pressing for many people in the Latin culture.  There is less stress for the Latinos, which can be the cause of frustration to foreigners living in their adopted country, especially for Type A personalities.  Latin Americans live in the present moment and so keeping appointments and being on time as being important is not present.

The sense of organization is different in Latin America and can appear to outsiders as being illogical.  Once you understand their perspective, their way of doing things is completely rational (to them).  A low wage clerk or bureaucrat in the residency visa office doesn’t really care if you were the CEO of  a multi-million dollar company back in the United States or Canada.  They still want you to come back and bring them a specific form or document even if it wasn’t on their original list of required documents.  This may be the third or fourth time you’ve been to that same office to accomplish the task.

Recommendations to lessen Culture Shock:

  • Be patient.  Have a Sense of Humor.  Go with the Flow.  Drink a Margarita.  (Virgin if you’re an alcoholic)
  • Bring something to read or do when waiting for an appointment.  Be ready to come back another day.  Remember that the person they are with is  receiving 100% attention of the person they’re meeting with, and time is of no importance.
  • Rent a place for at least 3 to 6 months, prior to investing in a place.  Why rush into buying when you can rent places very reasonably?  This is a big decision and move yet so many people rush into it and have regrets later.Benefits of Renting before Buying:

    1) In the first place you’ll get a feel for a place to see if both you and any partner both like it.

An example which illustrates the point:  One couple from North Carolina, Darrell and Amy,  bought a home in San Juan del Sur (Nicaragua) near the ocean after retirement.  After reading books for six months, having friends visit and tell them what a beautiful view they had, and walking their dog on the beach, they wanted to scream “get me out of here.”  They were simply bored.  After moving to the picturesque colonial town of Granada, they started getting involved with the local and expat community, teaching art, and other projects and are very fulfilled.

2)  Secondly, you’ll get to know the local market by living there.

What part of town you like or even if the town you chose is a right fit.  Do you want to live near the lake?  the main plaza? In a mid-rise apartment?  Would you be more relaxed in a  colonial home with center courtyard and outdoor living among the local community?  Do you feel “safe” in a gated community even if more isolated from town?  What neighborhood feels like your “home away from home” to you?

3) Thirdly, you’ll have personal referrals from neighbors and new acquaintances and friends, locals and expats about who is honest and trustworthy when it comes to showing and selling real estate.

Unfortunately, there are too many stories of people who were scammed by real estate agents, lawyers, Many people from the US are taking advantage of the naiveté of those moving abroad.  Some people lose the equity in their homes and life savings by rushing into a real estate “bargain deal” that has to be signed and closed in one week.

People want to believe that they are the only special ones getting that penthouse suite under market price because of some feigned reason about the owner.   Even when a contract is in Spanish that they don’t understand, some buyers rush into owning their dream home abroad. They don’t even get their own lawyer, but use the same lawyer as that outgoing and “nice” real estate agent recommends.   Later, they find out they only bought a time share of the property, or that the monthly homeowners fees have been raised to $500 per month and not the $50 per month verbally told to them. Or they’ve resold the same property over and over.  Or the promised clubhouse with pool,  water system, sewage system, underground utilities, lights, (pick one) is never built. And the developer has skipped town with your money and/or gone bankrupt.

4) Get involved with Expat groups, some with special interests, cooking, art, writing, sports, drama, music.   It’s easy to connect as there are expat “Gringo Nights” in most expat communities and expat forums to share thoughts and experiences.

5)    Get involved with the Locals.  Practice your Spanish.  Bring a child a book or a new soccer ball.  Volunteer to help those less fortunate and feel fulfilled when you see a child’s eyes light up, or the elderly smile in gratitude.  You can make a difference in someone’s life with a one-to-one connection.

Living overseas is not for everyone.  Qualities or attributes that are important to possess:  Desire for Adventure & Change.  Flexibility.  A Sense of Humor.  Patience.  Love of People over things and or results.  Self-Reliance.  Self-containment.  Being Content.  A Positive Outlook on Life.

  • Dance everyday!  Sing! Laugh! Love! Paint. Bike. Swim. Surf. Fish. Kayak. Snorkel.  Cook.  Move. Walk. Socialize. Learn. Help others. Know Thyself.
  • Drink some fresh coconut juice.
  • Don’t worry, be happy.


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