Cultural Etiquette in Spanish-Speaking South America

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  • 0:03 Spanish-Speaking Countries
  • 0:57 Interacting with People
  • 2:37 Personal Space
  • 3:14 Invitations
  • 4:52 Cultural…
  • 6:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

Each country in South America is unique, but some cultural aspects are shared. This lesson concentrates on those aspects while highlighting some important differences.

Spanish-Speaking Countries

To begin, let's explore the map to name the countries of South America that are Spanish-speaking. They are Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Perú, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina. Even within each of these countries, one can find cultural differences.

To illustrate what this means, imagine you walk through a colonial town with cute narrow streets, small shops, and cafes all around. While walking, you might see an indigenous lady wearing colorful clothing, a guy or girl in a suit on their way to work, a girl wearing what looks like regular modern clothing, etc. This symbolizes the many types of people found in a small town in South America. Luckily, there are some cultural aspects that countries share. Let's travel around and discover some etiquette that can be used in some of these South American countries.

Interacting with People

First of all, do not assume people speak English, since this is actually the exception. You're okay at hotels and some restaurants that have foreigners as their main clientele, but otherwise Spanish is the spoken language.

Second, the 'textbook' greetings buenos días, buenas tardes, and buenas noches (or 'good morning,' 'good afternoon,' and 'good evening') are the standard courtesy. You should also shake hands when introduced to people.

However, some countries use one kiss on the cheek to greet people (not strangers), even when someone is introduced. It's best to shake hands and reciprocate if someone moves to kiss on the cheek. Note that this can vary from country to country, between regions within the same country, and even within families. Also, note that the 'kiss' is done touching cheek to cheek with lips in the air. Putting the lips on the other person's cheek is rather uncommon. Finally, the general rule is a kiss between women and men and women, but not between men. Though, again, this may vary.

In general, refrain from pointing at someone with your index finger as it is considered rude, and use usted (more formal than ) to address people in general. If they use when they talk to you, go ahead and use as well. Also, note that Argentina and Paraguay use vos instead of . Conversely, in Uruguay vos and are used together, depending on the person. Finally, in Bolivia and Ecuador, vos is used in certain regions, especially in the highlands. In Chile, vos is mostly for close relationships, and the use of is becoming more and more common.

Personal Space

Very often, people in South America speak to each other closer than you may be used to. This is simply how some people interact. Closeness when talking should not be interpreted as a sign of anything in particular.

When walking in the street, male strangers may whistle to women or comment on their beauty as they pass. Ignoring them is the best approach. In fact, this may be changing in the current world because, for instance, Ecuador has a campaign against men harassing women in the street. But again, this is not common in every Spanish-speaking country in South America and not even every city within a country.


South Americans, in general, consider it a big courtesy to invite people over to their homes for lunch or dinner. You can show appreciation by taking flowers, a bottle of wine, or fine pastries. Do not ask 'What can I bring?' as this is not a custom in South America.

Although it is not a rule, plan to have a few hours available, especially if the invitation involves the family of the host or hostess. Timing may be a bit casual, and some guides advise to arrive 15-30 minutes late rather than on time. However, it is best to be safe because different families can have a different view on punctuality, and they may consider it rude if you show up too late. A 5-10 minutes late arrival should be regarded as reasonable.

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