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An expat struggles to pick up the subtle clues of good Ecuadorian behavior

By Dave Nelson

I’m in trouble and don’t know it.

I have never been adept (the word hopeless has been used) at picking up the subtle clues and nuances in conversations and behavior. For instance, after returning home from an overnight trip withdaves logo three other couples my then-wife began talking about the troubles that one of couples were having. My response of “what troubles?” brought on the inevitable, “didn’t you notice?” Sure enough, their divorce was not too long in arriving.

So how can I believe that I can be a part of the Ecuadorian culture where so much communication is subtle and indirect, i.e., beyond my ability to comprehend?

Pedant that I am, I was off to see my teacher to learn the rules, but knowing that, 1) there are no “rules”, things are just the way they are, and 2) learning the rules will not by itself cure my lack of sensitivity, but at the least will help a little. I have learned over the years that life is easier by taking the affronts and put downs by just letting them go by; it’s a problem for the affronter, not me. And if there is truth in a critical comment, I say so and have a discussion. My way of handling things makes it a bit more difficult to get a handle on this stuff.

Confused guy

‘I wish I hadn’t said that.’

So this is what I learned from my teacher, although it turned out I had already learned some of it myself, the hard way.

In this culture there is something wrong with you if you don’t get your feelings hurt. If you correct me in front of others, you have shown me to be wrong and, even if you are right, diminished me and I am entitled to be hurt and offended. When you enter a room and don’t immediately greet me, even if I am in conversation with someone, you have offended me. “Have you gained some weight?’, even if true and just a little weight, is a no-no. And, of course, “How do you like my new dress?” requires something positive, no matter how awful it looks. Giving another person, male or female, “the eye” by directly and slowly assessing their attributes, can bring their lifelong refusal to speak to you. And, of course, always greet the woman with a hug and air kiss and the man with an extended hand. Even though the lunch is unexpectedly running into the time for a very important meeting, don’t leave early.

In one case, a woman and her teen age daughter were in a conversation about models in a magazine and talking about how tall they were. Her short uncle was in the room and suddenly got up and left, obviously upset. He was hurt because he felt criticized for not being tall. He thereafter, although outwardly polite, with greetings and partings, avoided speaking with her.

When you know you have offended someone don’t later go to the offended party to apologize and work it out. That is taken as confrontation and solving a problem by directly discussing it is a no-no. So you need to find an indirect way of letting the other person know your regrets. The woman above, who had been shunned by her uncle, found herself in a discussion with someone about the positives of short people, uncle was in the room, and after that everything was fine.

But I’m a nice guy, always smiling and friendly and a gringo, so don’t I get a break? No.

Men in the U.S. have the same difficulty in dealing with these things, so are Cuencano men better at it? No.

Is this one of the reasons there is a high rate of ulcers, high blood pressure and obesity among Ecuadorians. Yes, they too, hold things in.

I am sure some of this is overstatement, understatement or too general so adjust it as you see fit. For me, wanting to acclimate as much as possible, it is important but not critical and I will be more observant, most of the time.

Dealing with children is much easier even though they are in the process of learning the rules. Three year old Antu always puts out his hand for me to shake when we meet and always says bye-bye. Three year old Maria greets with an “hola” and will throw me a kiss with her hand when she leaves.


About the Author

David Nelson, spent 30 years growing up and getting educated in Oregon before moving to the Oakland, California and the East Bay area, where he practiced worker’s compensation law, representing injured workers, for 40 years. When he retired from his legal practice, he worked another nine years as a part-time gardener before moving to Cuenca.

  • Edd Staton

    Here’s a tip from me to you, Dave. Unless you’re talking to a guy in the gym who has been pounding the weights, asking “Have you gained some weight?” is a no-no in ANY culture. Likewise, no man anywhere in his right mind would ever say, “I think it makes you look fat” in response to a question about a new dress. If I’ve offended you with these comments I’ll find an indirect way to apologize later. All of this is shared with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

  • ecexplorer

    What a pleasant contrast this is to the gringos that go trampling through Ecuador like it was their personal sideshow.

  • jamboman

    Good article. Shows you commonality even with different cultures. People are very emotional and easily offended, no matter the culture or language. The older i get the more i realize this. Love really is the answer. I think John Lennon wrote that.

  • sueb4bs

    Simple RESPECT for others goes a long way in all cultures.
    Expats will never know it all so get over it, bud. Self respect and courtesy is not magical thinking — your piece blew me away because it is greatly overthinking . In any culture BEING a kind person is immediately felt by others. So, think about that, my friend…