South American culture presents a fair advantage to any visitors in this part of the world. It is an advantage in that most countries in South America use Spanish as their national language. The biggest exception is Brazil, who use Portuguese as their national language.

It follows therefore that if you are visiting South America, you will be safe as far as greetings are concerned if you learn how to say hello  in Spanish, and denoting the appropriate time of the day, that is: “buenos dias” for good morning, “buenas tardes” meaning good afternoon, or “buenas noches” for good evening. If you are in Brazil then what you need is to learn to say in Portuguese, “ola” for plain hello, “boa dia” for good day or “boa tarde” for good evening.

Tip: it will help to learn a bit of Spanish before you go. Take a few lessons on Babbel!

Understanding South American Culture and Norms

However as much as having the words to say hello may help a visitor build a relationship with the locals, it helps further if one understands the other social protocols that come with meeting South Americans for the first time and as your volunteer experience continues.

Most nations on this part of the globe use the handshake as the most common greeting in first meetings, but unlike other places here maintaining steady eye contact is expected when shaking someone’s hand, especially among the men.

If you happen to be in Argentina, you will be expected to follow an order where you are to start with greeting the oldest person in the room before moving on  till you get to the youngest, and when leaving you are expected to say goodbye  to all parties present, individually with another handshake.

When it comes to greetings between men and women, it is best to wait for the woman to extend their hand first, before the man does the same. Greetings between women and fellow women may vary depending on the country, for example while in Chile, women generally pat each other on the right forearm or shoulder. Whereas in Brazil women kiss each other, starting with the left cheek and then alternating cheeks.

So as not to be caught unaware, there are some things a volunteer needs to remember while in South America. First of all try and refer to people in their professional title if they have one e.g. in Spanish you will say “Doctor” for medical doctor or Ph.D., “Ingeniero”  for engineer, or “Arquitecto” for architect, and “Abogado”  meaning lawyer.

Also to avoid offending anyone use their sir names to address other people you may meet, however confusing the system may be. A good example would present itself in Colombia, where most people have their paternal and maternal sir names, and they will use them both, the situation is the same in most parts of the continent.

The first introductions are expected to be  a bit formal in most parts around here, but do not be afraid to drop names , it is all about who you know, this is why it is always best to wait for a  third party to introduce you before getting to know the locals that you are going to work with. Do not be surprised if you run in to nepotism, it is considered a good thing to employ family members who you trust in most countries in South America.

Observe and follow any non verbal cues because these form a big part of the communication here, especially in Colombia, so much so Colombians are referred to as indirect communicators. Try also to stick to face to face communication while here rather than formal letters or emails, people here prefer to build a relationship and trust with the people they work with.


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