A topic that is widely discussed when talking about the cultural differences between Latin Americans and Europeans is the concept of time. When I say time, I mean a number of factors. Firstly, the notion of preciseness; for instance, how late is it acceptable to turn up to a meeting with a friend or at work? The second factor is the time culture; that is to say, what time people usually wake up, go to work, eat lunch, finish work, eat dinner and go to bed. And lastly, the words and expressions that are used to deal with time.
In the UK, be on time means be on time. If a meeting starts at 1pm, you’re expected to be there at 1pm and any later will get you frowns and looks of disbelief. In Mexico on the other hand, if you arrive at 1pm for a meeting scheduled at 1pm, you’re likely to be waiting around for at least half an hour before anyone else shows up, and probably an hour in total for the last person to arrive, before the meeting starts. This casualness about timing is mistakenly conceived to be widespread all over Latin America, which based on my experiences, I do not believe to be true. In Colombia for example, while it may be common for people to be rushing (estar de afan in Colombian colloquial terminology) to a meeting because they spent too long chatting to their neighbour over a tinto, they’ve learnt to set their clocks 10 minutes earlier so that they don’t arrive late to work. The times of meetings of any kind are respected and arriving late is looked down upon.
In many Latin American countries, people are used to waking up very early for work, eating breakfast in the early hours of the morning, having an “almuerzo ejecutivo” around midday or 1pm, finishing work around 5pm and having a light dinnery-snack just before an early bedtime. Argentina is an exception to this generalisation – most shops don’t open until noon, and are then closed in the afternoon for a siesta and will reopen again from around 6pm to easily 10pm or 11pm. It’s quite acceptable for a normal working day to start around 10am or 11am as well!
In Spanish, there are many ways to say “now”, “later” or “in a second” and each can have a slightly different meaning depending on the context. For example, whilst at school we are taught that “ahora” means “now”, it can also be used to mean, “in a moment”. Likewise, if you add the diminutive “ita” at the end, making it “ahorita” or even heard as “ahortica”, it can mean, “in a moment”, “in a while” or even, “just now”. For example, you could say “quieres un café?” (woud you like a coffee?), and I could reply “ahora”, “ahorita”, “ahoritca” as well as “luego”, “más tarde”, “ya”, “en un ratito”… etc, to mean “not right now, but in a little while”. Thus, when “ahorita” becomes negative “no ahorita”, it has the meaning of “not at the moment/not right
now”. Likewise, the same word can be used to mean something that just happened in the past. For example, “ya hablaste con tu mama?”(have you spoken to your mother?), and you could reply, “si, ahorita hablé con ella” (meaning, yes, I spoke to her just now).
Time is of the essence, so make sure to learn these cultural differences before you set off on your travels!