As I’ve mentioned here before, my wife is from Nicaragua. Between being married to her and traveling down there, I’ve learned a bit about Nicaraguan culture. One difference I’ve noticed between them and us that I haven’t seen discussed elsewhere is what I call the putting-up-with-other-people’s-crap / not-giving-other-people-crap-to-put-up-with dichotomy. (Sorry for the overly technical language, and if you’re a cultural anthropology grad student, feel free to use that title for your thesis.)
What prompted me to finally write about the topic was this post over on Points With A Crew regarding a Jet Blue promotion that awarded passengers 25% off a future flight every time a baby cried. PWAC also reminded us of the ridiculous situation where parents handed out goodie bags to nearby passengers to show remorse for having contributed to the survival of the species.
What I’ve noticed is that when it comes to showing consideration for others, Nicaraguans (this may be generalizable to other Central Americans, but I don’t know for sure) place more emphasis on tolerating what other people are doing, while Americans think it’s more important not to give other people things to tolerate. I’ll give you a few examples of what I’m talking about.
Example one: the grocery store. If you’re going down the aisle at a grocery store and you see somebody blocking your way, what happens? A good percentage of the time, they will move out of the way before you get there. It’s just common courtesy, right? And if they don’t move before you get there, you’ll go up to them and wait for a split second to give them a chance to sense your presence and move. If that doesn’t work, you’ll politely say, “Excuse me!” and be on your way.
Americans instinctively have a certain awareness of where their body is in the context of a crowded situation. We have this awareness, as far as I can tell, because it’s good manners not to get in other people’s way. Nicaraguans, as far as I can tell, do not have this awareness. If somebody is in your way, you’re more likely to have to ask them to move because they are not paying attention to what you’re doing. Standing in the middle of an aisle and blocking it is perfectly acceptable behavior. The burden is on whoever needs to pass; if you need to get by, a simple “con permiso” will do.
Another example: when my wife was growing up in Managua, one of her neighbors had a bull–a fully grown bovine living in an urban area whose density is on par with that of, say, historic downtown Charleston, SC, albeit with one-story houses. In the United States there would be zoning laws to prevent this from even being considered, not to mention a homeowners association to levy a fine every day until the animal is removed. In Nicaragua? No big deal. It was a novelty for the neighborhood, sure, but aside from that nobody cared. If you didn’t like the bull, that was your problem.
Example #3: the nicknames thing. People down there routinely use physical features to address strangers. Vendors and others trying to get my attention can say “Hola chele!” which roughly translates as “Hi light-complected guy!” It would also be acceptable to say to strangers “Hola gordo!” (“Hi fat guy!”) or “Hola negro!” (“Hi black guy!”). But this sort of thing would not be acceptable in the United States.
People getting uptight over crying babies thus strikes me as a pretty American thing. (Do Europeans fret over this stuff? I have no idea.) Not too many Nicaraguans would get upset over a baby crying on a plane–this is what babies do after all–and besides, their neighbors back home are often playing loud music and setting off fireworks, so a crying baby is no biggie.
Americans, though… “There’s a baby! And get this: he’s crying! On a plane! No human being has ever suffered as much as I have!” You can tell from the sarcasm which side of the debate I’m on, and in fact if I were wealthy I’d fly colicky babies in first class on LGA-LAX flights purely out of spite, but when viewed through the not-giving-people-crap-to-deal-with filter, the complaint kind of makes sense. It’s ridiculous, mind you, but it makes a certain kind of sense. It’s great to be aware of others, and in fact it’s something my wife likes about American culture, but it’s also good to cut some slack to those around you.