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Worldly Wise

Take Time With People of Latin American Cultures

By Janelle Barlow, Ph.D.

All of the nations of Latin America share a common history of Spanish, Portuguese, and French colonization. They also mostly share a dominant religion, Roman Catholicism. They have developed cultures that largely strive for democracy but primarily rely on getting things done through family and personal relationships instead of government. In some Latino cultures, you will see more of a connection to Hispanic Europe, which is oriented to the past. Most Latinos, however, tend to be optimistic and free-spirited. You can see this in their music, their celebrations, and their dress. 

But before we go into too much depth about Latin American cultures, it is a good idea to distinguish between two commonly used terms: Hispanic and Latino. These distinctions can be confusing, so let’s get their usage right. One way to do this is to use a Venn diagram to separate Latino and Hispanic (see Figure 1). There’s overlap, and there are differences.

Latino refers to Latin America, where not everyone speaks Spanish, such as Brazil, where Portuguese is spoken. Latino is a geographic term; it is not a racial category, although it does refer to individuals from Latin America. Hispanic refers to anybody who comes from an area where Spanish is spoken, so the term relates to language and does not apply to Brazil. Hispanic also applies to other places outside the Americas where Spanish is spoken, such as Spain. 


The rest of the countries belonging to the center of the diagram include El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, St. Barts, Saint Martin, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Latin American cultures are obviously varied. Putting Cuba and Mexico into the same basket demonstrates the many variations among Latino cultures. 


It is also important to remember that Mexico is geographically located in North America. Nations that are located in the Caribbean (such as Cuba and Dominican Republic) are considered Hispanic because Spanish is the dominant language. Latin America is thought to be the land mass of South America, and the island nations in the Caribbean Sea are Caribbeans. Trinidad and Tobago, while in the Caribbean, is officially an English-speaking nation, so it doesn’t fit into Latino or Hispanic designations. Because of this complexity, it is a good idea to take a look at a map and do some Internet research about the country you are visiting.

Latinos tend to be collectivist in their approach, with a remarkably heavy emphasis on family, which includes the extended family and close friends. All other groups, including workplaces and even churches, pale in comparison to the role that family loyalty plays in Latin American cultures. Background, which is what families represent, is important and results in a high-context communication style. Latinos will no doubt give you a lot more information than you think necessary or even want to hear. 


Because Latino cultures are collectivist, it impacts their relationship to time. While they have learned to be on time for many business-related activities, the people of Latin America tend to believe that if something comes up regarding the family, then all bets are off. What is taking place right now is important—not some promise someone made the day before yesterday. Don’t get stressed out when you are attempting to meet deadlines while dealing with a Latino. When it comes to personal time, things become extremely relaxed. If you receive a dinner invitation to a Latino’s home, don’t expect the meal to start on time. In fact, if you arrive at the designated time, you’ll be early!


Focus on the relationships you are forming and you will be well on your way to understanding the demands of working with people whom you can appropriately call Latino. When you are first introduced to a group, expect people to be warm and friendly just as they would in the United States and Canada. But Canadians and Americans won’t likely show that same degree of relationship-building warmth the second day they meet you. They will be focused on getting down to work. In Latino cultures, however, you must allocate time to say hello, give a kiss on the cheek, and ask about the family. To do otherwise would be rude. Latinos want to get to know you, not just as a teammate they are doing business with, but also who you are as a person outside of work. They will want a higher degree of intimacy than you are probably comfortable with, depending upon your origins. They may also stand closer to you than you feel comfortable with if your culture is not Latino. Latinos don’t like open fights in business. They show respect for whomever is in charge; and they consider it rude to be as direct and outspoken as they frequently see from their northern neighbors. 

In short, take time to enjoy these vivacious people who are not afraid to get to know you and are willing to take the time to do so. It’s more than worth it!