A Few Hints about Bolivian Culture and Customs:
- Time is perceived very differently in the United States than in many other parts of the world, including Bolivia. Schedules are much more flexible in Bolivia, and starting and ending events “on time” is not nearly as big of a priority. Do not be alarmed or frustrated if planned events fall through, or if you show up to an event and it does not start until much later. Relax and enjoy the change of pace!
- Do not be surprised or offended if people stare at you, especially in rural areas. Bolivia is much less ethnically diverse than the United States and many other developed countries, so you may very well stand out. Remember, this is their country, and you are a visitor. Do not be offended if they are curious about you.
- Many indigenous Bolivians are very superstitious. (The main indigenous group around Cochabamba is the Quechua, although there are many other indigenous groups in Bolivia.) They may try an old custom to cure a sick person or visit a traditional healer before seeking modern medical attention.
- Families are generally very close-knit, and extended families often live together especially in rural areas, which are usually more traditional. Grandparents, parents, children, and often many aunts and uncles or multiple families will share a home.
- Bolivian greetings: Women greet with a single kiss on the right cheek (when greeting both men and women). Men greet women with a kiss on the cheek. They greet other men with a handshake. Bolivians who are used to interacting with foreigners may simply greet you with a handshake, as they will know that you are not accustomed to the cheek kiss.
- Some questions that might be considered rude in your culture are not considered rude in Bolivia. Do not be offended if you are asked how much you get paid or how much an item cost. Although you should not be offended by such questions, it’s usually advisable not to share that information.
- Many Bolivians are very friendly and enjoy having a conversation with people from another culture. They may ask many questions. If you have a question or need help, they’re usually willing to offer a hand.
- A lot of Bolivians are very open to the Gospel. If you sit down with a Bible, don’t be surprised if someone comes over and asks what you’re reading or even directly asks you to tell them about Jesus. Take advantage of this opportunity!
- When you go to another culture, you are the strange one.
- Avoid making quick or negative judgments.
- Watch your facial expressions and your words (many people may understand what you’re saying). Do not say anything that you would not understood by everyone present.
- Avoid making references to military/political issues or other religious groups.
- Remember that North Americans often are louder and more outgoing then those in your host culture, which may make them feel uncomfortable at times. Please be considerate, and remember that you are a guest.
- Any time you are in a situation that takes you out of your comfort zone, think of the people to whom you are ministering.
- Avoid flirting or spending large amounts of time alone with a member of the opposite sex.
- Be considerate of your hosts’ time. They have many responsibilities and don't have the time to act as tour guides and translators.
- Please be sure to ask a national’s permission before taking their photo. If a national asks you to pay them for their photo, do not take their picture but move on. (We don’t want to encourage begging, and it only reduces chances for others to take photos in the future.) If you ask a national to take your photo, keep in mind that there is potential that they could steal your camera.
Culture shock will always take place for those who are not native to Bolivia. Knowing that culture shock inevitably occurs allows you to be prepared in advance. It is a normal occurrence and nothing to worry about. The degree of culture shock one experiences depends on a variety of circumstances, such as your flexibility, the number of times you’ve traveled abroad, and whether or not you have spent time in a third world country before. The duration of your stay on the mission field will have a large impact on culture shock as well.
The largest effect of culture shock often is an appreciation for things from home, such as food, family, cleanliness, wealth, and material possessions. This could surface as a distaste for everything in the foreign culture, but this depends on one’s openness and willingness to immerse oneself in the culture, as well as one’s attempt to appreciate the beauty of a different culture and its traditions.
For those staying for more than 2 weeks, the chances of experiencing more culture shock is possible.
Signs of Culture Shock
- need for excessive amounts of sleep
- stereotyping of host nationals
- irregular eating habits (very little or excessive amounts)
For the most part these symptoms only occur in phases until the volunteer is able to deal with and accept the current situation. Being open, flexible, and willing to talk through these issues is the best way to grow through culture shock quickly. Again, being open to learning about a new culture and trying to appreciate it will be one of the most helpful ways to experience a lower level of culture shock.
Stages of Culture Shock
- Initial Euphoria (the honeymoon period)
- Irritation & hostility
- Gradual adjustment
- Adaptation & biculturalism
One of the best solutions for culture shock is knowing your host country. Learn as much about your host country as possible before leaving. If you have questions about the way nationals do things, ask one of your local missionaries or a native friend that is understanding. (Be sure to ask in a tasteful way so as not to offend them.) Remember to keep a good sense of humor. As always, make sure you’re also spending time in the Word and prayer. Do not neglect this no matter how overwhelmed you may be feeling; our Creator understands other cultures much better than we ever can.