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Master Colombian Social Etiquette: The Insider’s Guide You Need

Tourists visiting la Guajira colombia

Updated on 05/27/2024

Dear reader,
I would also like to recommend our Colombia travel guide, which provides a perfect overview of the tourist attractions in Colombia. Enjoy reading it!

Colombia is a country rich in diversity and culture, but it also has its own rules of courtesy. In this blog, we teach you everything you need to know to make a good impression among the locals.

How to Greet in Colombia

The most common greetings in Colombia involve kisses, handshakes, and hugs. The way to greet depends on the level of trust and familiarity you have with the other person.

Kisses

Generally, Colombians greet each other with a kiss on the right cheek when meeting a woman, also between women. This custom is reserved for friendships and trusted contexts. However, among men, this gesture is not common, usually opting for conventional greetings.

Handshakes

Handshakes are sometimes more formal, such as when greeting your boss or someone you are meeting for the first time. However, you can also use it for informal occasions, for example, when greeting your best friend or someone with whom there is some kind of highly trusting relationship.

Women when they meet someone for the first time also shake hands, or occasionally kiss each other on the cheek, but this depends on the level of trust each person has.

Hugs

On the other hand, hugs are a bit more intimate and are mainly reserved for family or special situations. In general, hugs are used as a demonstration of affection and appreciation. So, avoid hugging people you are meeting for the first time.

How to Introduce Yourself in Colombia

Titles and Names

When people introduce themselves in Colombia, they usually say the name or last name, followed by a “mucho gusto” (nice to meet you) or “encantado/a de conocerlo/a” (pleased to meet you).

Doctor

It’s common to see Colombians using professional or academic titles, such as doctor, engineer, among others. For example:

  • ¡Un gusto conocerlo, doctor Ramírez! Me han dado muchas referencias de usted. Which means: “Nice to meet you, Dr. Ramirez! I have been given many references about you”.

In formal contexts, people from lower social classes tend to use titles like “doctor/doctora” or “don/doña” when referring to professionals from higher classes, as a sign of respect.

Still, this is more than just a word to show a lot of respect. So, if you look like an entrepreneur, don’t be surprised if you are called “doctor” at some point.

Don or Doña

Colombians use “Don” or “Doña” a lot, followed by the last name. For example, it is used to address older people or equally individuals who are important.

For instance, if you go to José’s neighborhood store, a man over 60, you can say:

  • ¡Buenos días, Don José! Me podría dar una empanada, ¿me hace el favor? Whic means: “Good morning, Don José! Could you give me an empanada, please?”

Or if you’re entering the office for your first interview with the company’s director:

  • Doña Elizabeth muchísimas gracias por la oportunidad de recibirme aquí. Whic means: “Doña Elizabeth, thank you very much for the opportunity to meet here”.

Señor o señora

El “señor o señora”, or “Mr. or Mrs.” in English, is part of Colombian culture and serves almost the same function as “Don or Doña.” It is one of the most commonly used manners.

For example, when you meet your mother-in-law for the first time or interact with her those first times:

  • Buenas tardes, Señora ¡Es un gusto conocerla! Antonio me ha hablado mucho de usted. Which means: “Good afternoon, Mrs. It’s a pleasure to meet you! Antonio has told me a lot about you”.

Now, it’s very normal to see Colombian children responding to their parents’ questions with “Yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am” or saying “Mr.?” “Mrs.?” instead of saying “What?” Otherwise, they would be considered rude.

It is also common to use this word when speaking on the phone with a stranger. For example, in call centers, it is used a lot because they must maintain a formal tone when communicating with customers. Even when addressing letters or emails, as well as receipts, Señor or Señora. is placed before the last name.

Veci

Another very popular term in Colombia is “veci” or “vecino,” which in English is equivalent to “neighbor.” This term is especially popular if you go to Bogotá, the capital of Colombia. And it’s ironic because, in general, neighbors are supposed to be people who do us favors every day, but in the “sacred heart country,” you can greet everyone from the neighborhood store owner to the taxi driver this way.

  • Buenas tardes veci/vecino, por favor hasta el Museo del Oro. Which means: “Good afternoon, neighbor, please take me to the Gold Museum”.

That’s how easy it is to establish trust in Colombia!

“Tú” vs “Usted”: Which to Use in Colombia?

Supposedly, in Spanish, “usted” is formal and “tú” is informal, but here it’s not really the case. You’ve probably noticed from TV series that “usted” is used a lot in Colombia. What really happens? I’ll explain it in 4 facts.

  • You should know that, in countries like Colombia, especially in urban and rural areas, the use of “usted” is not limited to formal situations only.
  • It turns out that it’s very common to see friends, family, and even romantic partners using “usted” with each other, speaking formally despite having a huge level of trust, a situation where “tú” would normally be used.
  • This can give visitors the impression that in Colombia, the treatment is very formal and modest. I remember a famous Mexican travel content creator mentioning that during his visit to Colombia, people used “usted” with him, making him feel older.
  • It really depends on the customs of each region in the country. For example, in Bogotá or the northern coast, you’ll hear “tú” a lot, but if you go to Medellín or somewhere in Antioquia, you’ll notice they use “usted” more.

So, someone learning Spanish or a Spanish-speaking visitor should use “usted” in a standard way when addressing older people or people in positions of authority, such as bosses, in-laws, etc. However, no one will be offended if you address them with “tú.”

If you’re genuinely interested in this topic, we invite you to learn more on our blog about Colombian dialects and slang.

Etiquette and Communication Tips in Colombia

Eye Contact

You should know that it is important to maintain eye contact at all times when engaging in a conversation with Colombians. It’s a general courtesy rule that they highly value.

Personal Space

Colombians, like many other Latinos, have a very affectionate way of relating to others, both in words and physical contact. Therefore, don’t be surprised if they get close when talking or greeting. 

It’s better not to try to distance yourself, as people might interpret it as distrust or insecurity. Avoid being shy when visiting a Latin American country, especially Colombia, as local culture values closeness in interpersonal relationships.

Conversation Topics

To have an effective conversation with local Colombians, I recommend having general knowledge about the country, cultural topics, sports like soccer or cycling, current events, trends, and stories. It might seem boring, but these are neutral topics, and Colombians can easily follow along.

Also, there are some topics it’s preferable not to touch upon with locals, such as those related to:

  • Terrorism.
  • Religion.
  • National politics.
  • Drugs and drug trafficking.

For example, avoid initiating conversations about Pablo Escobar; while many foreigners might think of him as a source of national pride, it’s the opposite in Colombia, and bringing it up can irritate locals.

Most people have shown sensitivity to these situations. If you still want to discuss such topics, be very cautious and let others introduce the subject.

Invitation Etiquette

In Colombia, people are usually very courteous to foreigners, whom they, in many cases, practically revere. For instance, when they invite you to dinner, lunch, coffee, the movies, or other events, it generally implies that the person extending the invitation intends to pay for the meal or cover expenses, showcasing their hospitality.

If you’re invited to dinner, always wait for the host to start the meal and express gratitude at the end.

If you’re the one extending the invitation and wish to cover the costs, do so discreetly to prevent locals from trying to pay for you. 

This courtesy gesture is popular not only towards visitors but among Colombians themselves.

In social events, consider:

  • When entering someone else’s space, be mindful of your arrival, how you arrive, and with whom.
  • Avoid bringing gifts like food and desserts (e.g., cakes or wines), as any gift is expected to be shared with all guests unless that’s the intention. Bring a gift exclusively for the hosts.
  • Avoid asking for things like the Wi-Fi password or the bathroom without being offered first. Accept any offers made to you politely.
  • It’s essential to bid farewell when leaving an event, especially to the hosts. In parties with many guests, it’s enough to say goodbye to them. In smaller events, briefly bid farewell to everyone, expressing thanks. Do the same when arriving and greeting.
  • Dress appropriately for most invitations. Although the type of attire is usually not specified, be authentic; you shouldn’t try to stand out, but neither to blend in.

Romantic Date Etiquette in Colombia

When it comes to dating, men usually invite women, not the other way around, although modern couples may choose to split expenses. Dates tend to be formal, and couples have several outings before truly considering it a “romantic date.”

In many dates, the relationship is often kept low-profile for a while, to see how it develops before making it public. This is agreed upon by the couple, and it’s perfectly acceptable.

Regarding dating culture, here are some tips to consider before going out with a Colombian man or woman:

  • Colombia has a deep-rooted macho culture. In relationships, Colombian men tend to be direct and confident in making proposals.
  • Although Colombian culture allows for expressions of affection and premarital relationships, Colombian women do not consider themselves “easy.” Many girls seek serious relationships, reflecting a desire for meaningful commitment.
  • The importance of family in Colombia is significant. Couples often share many details about their families, such as anecdotes about their parents, uncles, cousins, or close friends.
  • Meeting the parents is not just a formal step but a significant gesture. Both individuals decide to take this step, seeking parental approval, a deeply rooted practice reflecting respect for parents’ opinions in choosing a partner. You are likely to have the opportunity to meet your in-laws in this process.
  • Extended family is also crucial. Couples not only connect with parents but may also get involved with other family members, participating in family events and thereby strengthening family ties.
  • Keep in mind that fidelity is a highly important value in Colombian culture.

14 Colombian Manners and Customs You Should Know

  • Politeness is key in Colombia. Saying “hello, please, and thank you” is a fundamental gesture in any interaction.
  • It’s common in Colombia for someone to hold the door for the person behind them. This act of kindness is expected to be reciprocated.
  • Avoid pointing at unfamiliar people with your index finger; instead, use your whole hand with an open palm. It can be a sensitive gesture for people.
  • It’s normal in Colombia to see people offering their seats in public transportation to older individuals, pregnant women, or those with disabilities when the vehicles are full.
  • Often, while walking through the streets in any city or town, you’ll encounter street vendors offering you objects or food, sometimes just asking for money. You don’t need to be rude to reject them; a simple “thank you” or “no, thank you” will suffice, and they will move on.
  • Punctuality is not a strong suit of Colombians, as they tend to arrive late to most personal appointments. It’s not considered very bad to keep someone waiting for half an hour at the entrance of a shopping center, only to then go shopping. This is because the culture values time differently than, for example, European culture. However, if you are punctual, there’s a chance people will take you more seriously next time.
  • It’s common for appointments or meetings scheduled for certain hours to start with a delay, especially in social events. For example, scheduling a meeting at 7:00 might mean it starts at 7:30 or 8:00. And this is not considered offensive.
  • Using nicknames like ‘monos’ or ‘gringos’ for white foreigners is common in Colombia. These are informal expressions and should not be taken as offensive.
  • Affectionate nicknames like “negro,” “negrito,” or “negri” are also common. This reflects trust and appreciation in a friendship context and is not considered an insult. In fact, it can be more offensive to use terms like “people of color” or its variants.
  • If you see a public party and want to join the dance, you can. Unlike other countries, in Colombia, they won’t deny you the opportunity to learn to dance; after a few hours, they’ll make you feel like part of the family.
  • When asking a Colombian for directions to a specific place, whether they know your language or not, they will explain it to you no matter what, until you’ve understood.
  • When a Colombian invites you to try aguardiente, just say yes. It’s perceived not just as a drinking gesture but more as a gesture of friendship and trust, unless you’re recovering from alcoholism—remember, they are very direct and open.
  • Colombians are experts at bargaining in many places; it’s not considered impolite. If you find yourself shopping in a market, having negotiation skills will be appreciated. Also, as foreigners are often charged double the prices, bargaining will likely help you.
  • Coffee moves daily life in the country. In both work and personal meetings, sharing a cup of coffee is not just a social act but a ceremony of generosity and unity. Expect to be offered a “tinto” before and after meals, in meetings, visits, and dates.

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About Author

Frank

Frank

Hello! I'm Frank Spitzer, the founder and the heart behind Pelecanus, a specialized tour operator for Colombia travel. My journey in travel is vast and rich – I've explored over 60 countries, absorbing cultures, experiences, and stories along the way. Since 2017, I've been channeling this wealth of global experience into creating unforgettable travel experiences in Colombia. I'm recognized as a leading authority in Colombian tourism, with a deep-seated passion for sharing this beautiful country with the world. You can catch glimpses of my travel adventures and insights around Colombia on my YouTube channel. I'm also active on social media platforms like TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest, where I share the vibrant culture and stunning landscapes of Colombia. For professional networking, feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn. Join me on this incredible journey, and let's explore the wonders of Colombia together!

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