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Thursday, November 7, 2013

Latin American Etiquette (with the Ladies)



One morning, on my way to work in Oakland, CA, a woman and I boarded a city bus. Having been taught some manners as a child, I stepped back so the woman can board first. In a frustrated tone, she snapped at me, “go ahead!” With a suit yourself attitude and a shrug, I boarded the bus ahead of her. The transit operator (female) and I had a good laugh as she reminded me that times are changing. Trying to be a gentleman is not so much en vogue anymore. And speaking of ladies, I’ve met women here in the US who bitterly resent being called a lady. Woman is the politically correct term. Not all USA women, of course, share this sentiment, but enough to make me wonder.

On another occasion, I was riding a metro train (BART) from San Francisco to Oakland, and there was a Spanish-speaking immigrant couple standing over me conversing. With times changing, as alluded to by the female bus driver, I normally do not give up my seat unless it is for an elderly or disabled person (male or female). However, seizing an opportunity to practice my Spanish, I offered the women my seat. She smiled, seemingly pleasantly surprised to meet a gentleman in the United States of America, and responded with gracias, muy amable (thank you, you are so kind).

As I go about my Latin American vacations trying to fit in as much as gringo-ly possible, I’ve literally asked the friends that I made in those countries about proper etiquette. Of the many things they shared was that a gentleman absolutely gives up his seat for a lady on public transportation; a gentleman permits a lady to go first, such as boarding a bus, and the ladies expect it.

One hectic evening in a Quito, Ecuador bus station, I was waiting in line to buy a bus ticket back to Lima, Perú. Being next in line, I stepped forward as soon as a window became vacant. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a woman swooped past me towards the vacant window. Irritated, I snapped, con permiso señora, pero estaba aquí primero (excuse me, ma’am, but I was here first)! The ticket clerk looked at me as if I was from another planet, not to mention another country. To get even, she gave me, what I found out later to be, inaccurate information. I shared this incident with an Ecuadorian lady-friend hoping to learn a little more about cultural sensitivity, and was told that it is an Ecuadorian federal law that pregnant women, seniors (male and female), and the disabled (male or female) get to go the head of the line. The woman I confronted was neither pregnant, a senior, nor disabled, thus, I’m still up-in-the-air about as to  where I went wrong in my assertiveness.

When I land on Latin American soil, I find it necessary to change my paradigm when relating to women. In Latin-America, as in other parts of the world, the women’s movement have not come close to the advances made here in the US. Women in these countries generally hold positions where the disparity between male and female pay is far greater than that in the US. And the old-school customs that were practiced when I was a child growing up are still common place in Latin American countries. However, as I continue to explore Latin American cultures while improving my Spanish, I will need to keep abreast of their women’s movement because it is active and slowly gaining momentum.