Social Eating Etiquette and Faux Pas in Colombia
If you are visiting the South American country of Colombia it is important to be aware of some of the local customs associated with that countries social eating etiquette and any embarrassing mistakes you may make in committing faux pas while dining or being entertained by your hosts.
The family is important within a Colombians social structure; it is seen as a great source of support and advice and in return Colombians generally show tremendous loyalty to their family members. Extended families rarely all live together in the cities although it can be a more regular occurrence in rural areas. Despite the city dwellers living apart they are still very close and it is usual for them to visit one another purely on a social basis. The elderly are given great respect and revered for their age and knowledge of life. Children will generally remain living in the family home until such time as they become married.
In general the oldest person will be served their food and drinks first; this is because of the respect given to their elders and it being perceived that they are wise and knowledgeable because of their age. Along with respect comes a level of responsibility it is expected by Colombians that the oldest or most senior person in the home or the workplace will make all the important decisions.
When meeting and greeting men will always shake hands and maintain eye contact along with the appropriate greeting of good morning, afternoon or evening depending upon the time of day. Women will often grasp forearms when being introduced. Once a friendship has had a chance to develop greeting are often warmer with more hands on gestures, the men will embrace and maybe pat each other on the back or shoulder, while the women will kiss lightly on the right cheek. Until you are formally introduced and invited to use first names you should always use the appropriate title and their surname or family name.
When invited to the home of a Colombian you should take gifts of fruit, a potted plant or chocolates for your hostess, it is acceptable to send flowers in advance of your arrival, however never select lilies or marigolds as these are generally used for funerals. Roses are always a popular flower to give. When girls reach their fifteenth birthday it is an important milestone within Colombian culture, should you be invited then gold is usually given. If invited into the home of a Colombian imported alcohol is always considered a valued gift. Gifts that are wrapped are not opened in public and so will not be opened when they are received.
Dining in Colombia can be quite formal with importance given to presentation, the best advice for following the correct or accepted dining etiquette is if unsure observe and then follow the actions of your host. You should always wait until being shown to your seat by your host and while eating hands should always remain visible while you should not rest your elbows on the table. ‘Buen provecho’ meaning enjoy your meal or have a good meal is the invitation to begin eating. It is considered polite to try a little of everything you are given. It is usual to eat all food with the correct utensils; fruit will even be cut into smaller pieces and eaten with a knife and fork. You should leave a small amount of food on your plate when you have finished, this is a gesture to say you have eaten enough, leaving an empty plate means your guest has not given you sufficient food and can be taken as an insult to their hospitality.
On completion of a meal expect to remain in your guest’s home for a few hours, leaving sooner than this may be deemed as your only being at their home for a free meal and not for the pleasure of their company. The use of small talk is considered important within Colombian society and will be used before getting to the point of the conversation, getting straight to the point without some level of introductory chat can be considered as impolite, a sign of aggression or impatience. Although families will often drop in unannounced on other members of the same family it is not acceptable for others to do so without arrangement.
Even small gestures such as holding open a door for another, offering food or drinks are expected to be received with a thank you, it is considered impolite not to respond to these gestures no matter how small they were. If you are used to plenty of personal space you should be aware that Colombians generally do not observe this rule and tend to stand very close when in conversation. It is considered impolite if you step back to give yourself a little more room. Yawning in public is considered to be impolite; other things considered to be bad manners are sneezing and coughing without covering your mouth.