The Culture of Costa Rica: Meet the World’s Happiest People
If you want to learn about traditions, customs or etiquette in the culture of Costa Rica, just invite three people to come into your house. Every one of them will say “Permiso” as they step inside — as if seeking additional permission on top of the invitation you already extended to the three of them to step inside your house.
This might seem like politeness overkill, but to Ticos it would seem odd if they DIDN’T say “Permiso” as they entered someone else’s private space — it’s like everyone has to bow at the entrance to someone else’s castle.
You’ll soon find yourself saying the same magic word the next time someone invites you into THEIR castle, and they will find you surprisingly proper, polite and educado.
If you like to kiss people, you’ve come to the right place. Although the coronavirus crisis has temporarily caused Costa Rican authorities to frown on this custom, in ordinary times it’s universally normal for a man and a woman, or two women, to greet each other with a kiss on the cheek. (And it’s just one kiss on the right cheek, not two kisses — we’re not in Europe.)
For men, a hearty handshake will suffice, or maybe even an embrace. But whether you’re meeting up with friends or you just happen to bump into someone you know on the street, it’s customary to offer a kiss or a handshake, depending on the other people’s gender and yours.
As a result of COVID-19, universal greeting behaviors like kisses and handshakes are currently discouraged by the national health authorities. Many people now just smile and wave, do a fist bump or even touch elbows, while laughing at how awkward it is to leave out the usual touches.
If you ever exchange emails with Costa Rican people, you will become aware that it’s simple courtesy to start each email by greeting the person and saying you hope they’re doing well. In the United States, you might typically start an email by cutting straight to the message you want to deliver, but in Costa Rica this comes off looking brusque and confrontational.
The same is true on the phone — if you call someone, even if it’s a friend or a business associate you commonly speak with, you would generally open the conversation with a friendly greeting and a little chitchat before you get around to the point of your call. In some cultures, these little niceties might seem like a waste of time, but in the culture of Costa Rica they’re practically a requirement.
The same rule applies to almost all face-to-face interactions with Costa Ricans. Even if you’re meeting with a lawyer to discuss an important legal issue, it would be customary to exchange a few pleasantries first before you get down to the important business at hand. Your lawyer might charge by the hour, but he’ll have a few minutes just to shoot the breeze!
A Costa Rican woman I know explained to me why she severed ties with an American business associate: “We Costa Ricans are very tranquilo, you know, but when you raise your voice at me, I don’t want to talk to you anymore.”
Raising your voice in anything that resembles anger is a sure-fire way to offend. Even IF you’re genuinely angry and even IF you have good reason to be, you’ll get a better result from your complaint if you deliver it in a normal speaking tone. Consider the culture of Costa Rica, and always try to be on your best behavior.
Costa Ricans are very courteous and non-confrontational — so much so that they might say “maybe” when the real answer is “no.” If they didn’t like the food and the waiter asks how the food was, they’ll say it was fine to avoid offending the waiter.
If you ask people on the street for directions, they are so happy to help that some people would rather give you bad directions than no directions at all. If people honestly don’t know where to send you, they’ll generally say, “No sabría decirle” (“I wouldn’t know how to tell you”).
But if they DO know the answer, they will stop everything they’re doing to give you detailed directions — and they will often close by saying, “Que Dios le acompañe” — “May God accompany you.”
And that’s a great wish, because with whatever directions they gave you, you may need all the help you can get.
Words to Call a Stranger
We’ve all had the experience of trying to get the attention of a stranger — for example, hailing a waiter or waitress to ask what the password for the Wi-Fi is. In English-speaking countries, we might open with a “Sir,” a “Miss” or an “Excuse me.”
But in Costa Rica, you’ll find a vast array of heartwarming and even humorous options for hailing a stranger. For example, a man trying to get another man’s attention might open with “Señor” (sir), “Caballero” (gentleman) “Amigo” (friend), “Tío” (uncle), “Primo” (cousin), “Capitán” (captain) or even “Papi” (Dad) or “Papito” (Daddy).
When addressing women, “Señora” (ma’am) is usually safe for older women, but younger women might prefer “Muchacha” (girl). Some women routinely address strangers, male or female, as “Amor” (love). “Mami” or “Mamita” (Mommy) is a bit riskier, especially if coming from a man, though both “mami” and “papi” are terms of endearment used in many surprising contexts. For example, a mother will sometimes call her little son “papito” — “Qué tienes, papito?” (What’s wrong, Little Daddy?).
Even “Gordito” (fat person) is acceptable if it’s said kindly among friends. It’s not a judgment about your weight, it’s just a greeting!
“Pura vida” (pure life) is the motto of Costa Rica, reflecting the life-embracing optimism of this country’s cheerful people.
It’s no accident that Costa Rica often ranks first on lists of the happiest countries in the world. It’s a mindset.
“Tranquilo” is a national mantra — meaning everyone can relax because everything is fine. “Tuanis” is another word that means almost the same thing — “todo tuanis” means everything is fine, or if a place is “super tuanis,” it’s a really great place.
“Mae” is the universal way of addressing a friend you’re talking to, as if to say “man” or “dude.” It’s believed to come from the English word “man,” so if you were to say, “It was incredible, man,” that would turn into “Fue increíble, mae.” Female friends also use this word among themselves, but it’s not the kind of word you would use on your grandmother.
Costa Ricans are known as “Ticos” because of their unusual habit of forming diminutives with the suffix “ico” instead of “ito.” For example, instead of “un poquitito” (a little bit), Costa Ricans will say “un poquitico.”
Costa Ricans also like to say, “¡Qué chiva!” to mean “How cool!” They also say “Diay,” an interjection with no easy translation, and “Upe,” a way of calling to people outside their house that is considered more polite than knocking on their door.
“Buenas” (“Good”) is also a universal greeting, like saying “Hola” to someone you’re passing on the street, or announcing yourself when you’re entering a place where you already said “Upe” a couple of times and nobody has come out to greet you yet.
If we were to get into some of the naughtier slang words, we would have to focus on this topic for quite a while. It’s not uncommon for Ticos to use salty language, although it’s normally used in a lighthearted way that doesn’t sound vulgar.
“La hora tica” (Tico time) refers to the Costa Rican habit of showing up fashionably late for most engagements. If some friends say they’ll come to your house at 7 p.m., for example, you probably shouldn’t even bother showering until 7:30.
Or if a group agrees to go to the beach at 3 p.m., that might be the time you first get around to looking for a bathing suit.
A relaxed sense of punctuality is one of the “tranquilo” aspects of Costa Rican culture. There are certain occasions when punctuality is important — like what time the bus is leaving.
If you have an important appointment or business meeting, of course it’s always best to arrive on time. But if you do, you may still have to wait for the person to see you.
Costa Ricans tend to have the traditional Latin American view of the sexes that gave rise to the word “machismo,” where men are entitled to a certain swagger that isn’t allowed for women. For example, it’s not unheard of for a woman to be “cat-called” or spoken to in a suggestive manner on the street.
Yet the culture of Costa Rica is also changing in this respect. Women’s groups have organized to put out the message that “piropos” (catcalls) are generally an unwelcome invasion, and most men understand this.
Costa Rica has also come a long way in its acceptance of the LGBT community. The country has gay pride marches, rainbow flags and gay-friendly hotels, and even though heterosexuals might sometimes joke about gays, hostility is rare.
Dress and Appearance
Costa Ricans take pride in their appearance and often dress up to present themselves as nicely as possible. This is especially true in the big cities of the Central Valley (where, for example, men rarely wear shorts).
It’s a totally different story in beach towns and other outlying communities. The normal “uniform” for a waiter or waitress in most places is a pair of shorts, a T-shirt and some flip-flops.
In San José, you will see well-dressed men and women everywhere. But if you’re spotted at a bar in Tamarindo wearing a long-sleeved shirt with buttons, people might wonder if you’re there for a job interview.
There are three huge holidays in Costa Rica — Christmas, New Year’s and Semana Santa (Holy Week).
The latter is the week before Easter Sunday, and it falls at a different time each year. But the entire government, all the banks and most major businesses shut down this week, especially toward the second half of it, as seemingly all of Costa Rica makes a mass exodus toward the beach. Prices are sky-high during this week, and popular places are super-crowded.
Mother’s Day is another occasion when people like to travel, although in Costa Rica Mother’s Day is celebrated on Aug. 15, not in May. Other popular holidays include Independence Day (Sept. 15) and Guanacaste Annexation Day (May 25).
In a Nutshell
The culture of Costa Rica is shaped by some of the friendliest and happiest people in the world, so you almost have to go out of your way to offend them. Ticos are quick to recognize that you’re not from here, and they’re very understanding of language barriers and cultural differences.
But with a sensitivity toward other people and some cross-cultural proficiency, you’ll get more out of your encounters with the Costa Rican people, and they’ll get more out of their encounters with you.
Just remember the national slogan, “Pura vida,” and the national mantra, “Tranquilo,” and you’ll do fine!