Cultural Awareness & Appropriate Behavior
A. You Are Not in Kansas Anymore
Salvadorans are friendly people inclined to like “gringos,” but poor Salvadorans have suffered greatly from military interventions by the US government and from a lack of social services and opportunities (such as roads, water, schools, jobs, etc.) An anti-dote of respect from us requires that we honor their cultural norms. This is a time to be aware and responsive rather than self-centered. Notice how people are acting and do likewise. For example, in the city kissing women on the cheek is common even during a first introduction, but less common in the countryside. Try to see what norms people are using and do likewise.
Remember: your visit is about them not about you or us. Going where gringos rarely travel means what you do will leave a lasting impression for good or ill – so take yourself and them seriously. What you do on your visit really matters. You are a diplomat representing the USA, International Partners, and your school.
B. Salvadorans Cultural Values
Respectful, Hardworking, Friendly, Grateful, and Quick to Laugh and Love – This is what you will get, and what you should give back. It is a great frame of mind and way of being in the world that may benefit you the rest of your life. Notice it and practice it.
C. Greeting People
Salvadorans will greet you by being polite and deferential – so reciprocate. People greet each other with a smile and “Buenos,” or “Hola,” and you should, too. Some people might seem aloof, but this is usually their expression of respect for you, and sometimes their uncertainty, or shyness. Therefore, you should be the first to show enthusiastic friendliness. Initiate a greeting whenever you see a person. Shaking hands is a further expression of respect especially among men. When departing any and every gathering, you show respect by always saying “adiòs,” or “hasta luego” to each person, often shaking hands, and always expressing gratitude.
Paying attention to coming and going, never taking it for granted, is a fundamental expression of respect and gratitude that people extend to each other – never taking anyone for granted or treating anyone merely as a means to and end. Instead hellos and goodbyes are times for communicating to each person that he or she is somebody who deserves personal attention.
D. Showing Respect – Why and How
Since you are a (relatively) rich gringo, a guest, and a funder of their project, villagers may be deferential with their expressions of respect. Your goal should be to make them the respected ones instead – especially your adult hosts, co-workers, and community leaders.
Respect is shown by adding “Señor” or “Señora” before a first name. If the person is older or the respected head of the community, you might go even further by using “Don” or “Doña,” but this should used sparingly and appropriately whereas “Señior/Señora” should be added liberally and often as an expression of respect.
Also Spanish has a formal and informal form of “you.” Unless speaking with young children (“tù” or “vos”), use “usted” to express your respect (unless you are explicitly asked to use the familiar form). If a Salvadoran disagrees with this “usted” policy, you may follow their lead.
E. Giving Thanks – Often
“Gracias” is the most used word in El Salvador. Say it often. Every good deed deserves a “gracias.” The response may be a nod and smile, or “de nada” which is most common, or the more magnanimous, “El gusto es mìo.” (“De nada” means “you are welcome,” literally “of nothing,” and “El gusto es mìo” means “the pleasure is mine.”) Salvadorans, like many people who have very little, find it natural to experience gratitude, which is a perspective worth emulating – and necessary during your visit.
F. Your “gringo” Public Image
As a “gringo,” you are always in public, curiously being watched, and always representing the USA. Therefore, always be polite and never loud or obnoxious – even with each other. (“Gringo” is the word most Salvadorans use for North Americans in everyday conversation and is not meant to be derogatory. The label “Americans,” as we like to think of ourselves, doesn’t work because they, appropriately, think of themselves as “Americans” as well.)
G. How to Speak Their Language
Using Spanish as much as possible, even badly, expresses respect. Speaking English in front of Spanish speakers, without interpreting, is impolite and should never be done. When a non-English speaker is in your group, speak Spanish or make sure someone is always interpreting into Spanish. Making sure everyone understands what is being said eliminates the possibility that people will fear they are being talked about. Even if you are speaking to another English speaker, use Spanish or translate, if there is a Spanish speaker with you. Also, be aware, often Salvadorans understand some English, but are too modest to admit it to you.
You should know at least the Essential Spanish words in Appendix F. Usually, about a third of the delegation will speak some Spanish. Each house will have one Spanish-speaking delegate, and your delegation will have at least one person fluent enough to serve as an interpreter. Learning and speaking some Spanish will make your trip more fun.
Tips for learning basic Spanish: The more you practice the easier it gets. Daily practice works best. Concentrate on the “Essential Spanish” included in the appendix because you must pass our test on the IP list of essential Spanish words. Also label common household items. There are excellent tapes you can get at the library – try Pimsleur, purchase a phrase book, or take lessons from a school or tutor.
H. Gender Differences
Spanish words are divided by gender and so are customs. For example, only women carry things on their heads while men use their shoulders. Most women usually defer to men especially in public (and children defer to adults). Only recently have women been allowed to leave their homes and participate in meetings and in some communities remain under-represented. Tasks are usually divided by gender. Men go to the fields and work at construction while women carry water, collect wood, care for kids, and cook. One way that we challenge their culture is that we will send males to cook and women to the fields and construction sites. This drives some Salvadorans crazy – at first. They may try to prevent the “wrong” gender from participating. However, in follow-up feedback we have been told that this becomes one of the most lasting and appreciated benefits of our visit.
As a gringo, you have some latitude. They may laugh or tell you “that’s a woman/man thing,” but this is a cultural exchange after all. Sometimes you may respectfully and sensitively do what feels right to you, but males should not be afraid to insist on making papusas or females to shovel manure in the fields.
I. Your Sexual No-No’s
Women who dress seductively are signaling men to be sexually aggressive – and they will be. Salvadoran women usually wear dresses, not pants or shorts. On the worksite, delegates can wear shorts and tee shirts but off the site, public places, and especially in San Salvador modest dress is required to avoid inviting unpleasant incidents.
You will see some young Salvadoran women, especially in the city, wearing tight seductive clothes. However, we ask our female delegates to not dress in low cut or tight shirts or short skirts. This expresses respect for the women in your community. They will be dedicated to making sure you are happy, and this is one way we can appreciate and respect them.
In the rural villages where you will be living, many families protect their daughters from male attention by keeping them at home or chaperoned. IP delegates again must show modesty and avoid flirting or allowing flirtatious attention. Women who respond are expressing a willingness to pursue a sexual relationship. Both male and female delegates should not indulge in flirtatious attention with Salvadorans, no matter how enjoyable because it is unfair for you to encourage them. To escape from poverty and to help their family they will hope that you will invite them to your home in the USA. Your relationship will always mean more to them than to you so please discourage flirtations for your sake but especially for theirs.
Flirtations among delegates are also destructive to the trip. They undermine team work, and solidarity as well as distracting from the purpose of the trip, which, as you recall, is about them and not you. If you find your true love in your delegation, please put our important mission first and make plans to meet at home.
J. Sexual Abuse
Abuse of women is a major problem. New laws against domestic abuse are seldom enforced. Custom requires men to protect women, but also expects women to be obedient to their husbands. The belief is still common that a man has the right to beat his wife and children. As many as a third of all girls are pregnant by age 14, and many make it their goal. However, increasingly women are claiming their independence, and they represent the country’s most dynamic under developed resource. More and more women are creating jobs for themselves. Educated women now fill over a third of all professional roles. In the cities, women head as many as a half the families. Role modeling respect between genders is more important than you can imagine because it is the cutting edge issue in their culture – as it is in ours.
K. Clean-up The Environment
Go out of your way to pick up your trash and any you find littering your village. Since you are respected, your care for their environment will leave a lasting impression.
Too few Salvadorans recognize how crucial taking care of their environment is for their survival and well-being. You will see people throwing trash from bus windows, and roadsides strewn with trash. In cities, some sidewalks have piles of trash because there are no waste disposal services. Littering has become a norm that has numbed awareness. Some Salvadorans joke that the trash strewn along the highways is their national flower.
The natural beauty and resources of El Salvador have been abused for centuries, and were devastated in the 1980’s by the civil war. The United Nations estimates that 90% of the natural forest has been lost which is the second highest loss among all nations. Wood must be imported. The wild cats and monkeys are now virtually extinct. Due to an absence of environmental laws, some Salvadorans profit by accepting toxic wastes from foreign countries, city air is filled with vehicle exhaust, and pesticides run off into the rivers. Similarly, ninety percent of the rivers are polluted. A crisis in drinking water is predicted within 15 years.
Video – Damian-A Real Life Experience