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Costa Rican vs American (United States) culture differences

Living in another country, there are bound to be cultural differences or differences in the way people go about their everyday lives compared to what you’re used to in your home country. Maybe there are variations in values or beliefs or even something as simple as the foods that are eaten. 

I have already been to a couple other Central and South American countries, so I wasn’t as surprised at the differences I’ve experienced so far. Although every country in Central and South America is unique in its own way, there is still some cultural overlap.

In preparing to come to Costa Rica, here are three cultural differences from the United States that I have noticed during my time here so far.

Everyone greets everyone 

I am from Philadelphia and many people here don’t greet each other. More specifically, in public with strangers or people someone has met once or twice, perhaps. I myself tend to ignore people as I’m walking past and mind my business. I don’t tend to speak to anyone unless I am in public with my family or friends. Here in Costa Rica, expect to be greeted more often by people you don’t know. Not everyone will greet you, but it happens to me quite often. It usually will be a simple “Buenos días” (good morning in Spanish), depending on the time of day. 

People in Costa Rica also tend to greet each other with a quick kiss on the cheek. This happens between women and between men and women as well. The first time it happened to me, I was a bit uncomfortable, but it doesn’t usually imply anything romantic. It’s just their way of acknowledging your presence and saying hello. In the U.S.  this is a lot less common so obviously, I wasn’t used to it. But once I understood it was just a greeting, I became more comfortable with it over time.

Family oriented 

People in the U.S. can be family oriented as well, but American culture is very individualistic at the same time. I’m very close with my family back in Philadelphia, so Costa Rican family values weren’t a huge shock for me. One difference I noticed from the United States is that it’s common in Costa Rica for children to live with their parents until they are married. For example, I have a host sister who is fairly older than me and she lives with me and the rest of my host family because she isn’t married yet. But, there is an older sister who lives in another house because she is married and has children of her own. In the United States, it is common for us to live with our parents until we reach college age, and those who stay longer may be perceived as too dependent. In Costa Rica, remaining at home isn’t seen as a lack of independence for the children living with their parents, which I think is due to their values on family.

Me with my Costa Rican host family.
Me with my Costa Rican host family.

Aggressive driving 

After being in Costa Rica for about a month now, I am glad I’m unable to drive here. People are a lot more aggressive and there are less rules. The rules that do exist are not as enforced. But, it also can be dangerous being a pedestrian. We don’t have the right of way like in the United States. If a car is coming, you have to wait for them to go through before you can cross because they won’t be inclined to stop. Stop signs are also seen as suggestions rather than a law. Knowing this before traveling to Costa Rica is very important so you can be as safe as possible when walking around. 

Walking along the street in a small beach town called Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica.
Walking along the street in a small beach town called Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica.

When traveling, there are bound to be cultural differences but that is one of the best parts about being abroad. You get to experience something new and different and share your experience with others. 

Find out more about adapting to culture and how to deal with culture shock.

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