Chile is one of South America’s most stable nations. It has a population of nearly 17.5 million and is one of the region’s most prosperous and fastest-growing economies. Chile was home to some of the world’s most ancient civilizations. Its present culture was heavily influenced by the conquest by Spain in the 1700’s and immigration from others of European descent.
This is a highly urbanized country, but Chileans’ sense of identity is linked to the countryside, with the figure of the huaso, a rural type known for friendliness and wit, being a central icon. The collective identity also is strongly linked to the natural world: the Andes, Easter Island, Atacama Desert, the island of Chiloé, the Pacific Ocean and Patagonia are major symbols of the national identity.
The family is at the heart of Chilean society, and extended families tend to maintain close ties, gathering for large holidays and celebrations. Family and business often are intertwined. Chileans are generally well educated and afforded a variety of professional opportunities, but most continue to place great importance on a person’s family background, often resulting in a lack of social mobility and a lack of social interaction between the lower and upper classes.
A recent wave of immigration from bordering Andean countries, such as Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, prompted primarily by a search for better working opportunities, has brought with it tensions among the local population. Many of these recent immigrants have difficulty gaining social acceptance. However, society, in general, is becoming more open to foreigners, and many Chileans value newcomers’ impact on the national economy, development and social awareness.
If you plan to visit or move to Chile, it is best to understand the country’s culture, as well as how to communicate effectively with locals. Here are many tips, and some dos and don’ts, for you to think about and practice before your journey.
- When greeting, women and women, and women and men, share an ‘air kiss’ on the right cheek.
- Men usually shake hands, although close friends, especially young men, also may hug and kiss each other on the cheek.
- The same practice is followed when parting. It is best, however, to carefully observe and follow the Chilean person’s lead.
- Greetings are accompanied by buenos días (‘good morning’), buenas tardes (‘good afternoon’) or buenas noches (‘good evening’ and also ‘good night’).
- At social gatherings, there is no formal order to follow in greeting others, but be sure to always say hello and goodbye to the host.
- In a business setting, however, you should greet the most senior person first or, if it’s the case, the most senior woman present.
- Do not address a Chilean by his or her first name unless you are invited to do so.
- Generally, only children, family members and friends use first names, although if interacting with peers or colleagues of similar age and education level, the use of first names is acceptable.
- Older or senior-level colleagues should be addressed by their titles or by Señor/Señora followed by the first last name (the father’s last name), unless they ask you to call them by their first name.
- Other cases also include addressing seniors as Señor/Señora and their first name. This denotes a respectful friendship.
- When addressing someone, use the formal Usted form until the other person indicates a preference for the informal Tú.
Conversational Dos and Don’ts
- Good topics of conversation for initial meetings include family, work, cuisine, wines, tourist sites, popular Chilean soap operas/shows (watched by men and women alike) and your home country.
- In general, it is best to leave humor, especially that of a political nature, for subsequent meetings; that is, once you have gotten to know the other person better.
- Chileans have a dry sense of humor; they use sarcasm and irony that may be difficult for foreigners to understand at first.
- Avoid discussing religion, local politics or human rights violations, especially when just getting to know someone. These issues are highly emotional and continue to divide Chileans themselves.
- Generally, Chileans feel their internal issues should not be discussed with foreigners unless they bring them up themselves. You especially should avoid making comparisons between Chile and Argentina.
Because of the nation’s history and geography, Chilean society is still somewhat closed, and a local’s first impulse toward a newcomer most often is going to be skepticism. In the workplace, Chileans are prone to measure tangible results, and are less likely to rely on intangible gains. This differentiates Chileans from their Latin American counterparts.
- Chileans use an indirect style of communication, as direct communication can be perceived as potentially hurtful and rude.
- They avoid confrontation; ‘saving face’ and maintaining honor or dignity are important.
- You should never openly criticize another person, but you should learn to ‘read between the lines.’
- It is acceptable to interrupt someone who is speaking, because interrupting is not considered rude but rather an expression of interest in the conversation. You should, however, be polite when doing so.
- It is possible for one group of people to be actively involved in two or even three topics of conversation simultaneously, with members participating as they wish.
Regarding personal space, Chileans stand fairly close to each other. They may touch one another, for example, by placing a hand on the other person’s shoulder. If one person tries to back away, the Chilean will close the distance. The closer the relationship, the more physical contact is involved.
It is important to maintain eye contact, even while speaking closely, as this shows interest and sincerity. Chileans tend to be distrustful or hesitant when first meeting strangers, especially in the upper class, and physicality and eye contact can help establish a rapport.
In public, moderate signs of affection, such as hugging and kissing, are acceptable and practiced by members of all classes; such behavior is inappropriate, however, in the workplace.
While Spanish is the official language, other languages spoken in Chile include Mapudungún, which is the language of the Mapuche people, Aymara in the Northern Andean region, Rapa Nui on Easter Island, and German.
Chilean Spanish is rapid, and speakers often drop the final letters of words, including the ‘s’ at the end of words indicating the plural. For example, a reply to ¿Cómo estás? (‘how are you?’), might be más o menos no más (‘so-so’); dropping the ‘s’ changes this to maomeno noma. Other suffixes that may become shortened include -ado to -ao, -ada to –á, and para to pa, so that para él (‘for him’) becomes pal.
The Castilian vosotros in not used in Chile (nor in the rest of Latin America), and is replaced by ustedes.
Informal speech makes great use of slang and colorful, invented words. Some common Chilean words and expressions include:
- Achuntar – to guess correctly
- Al tiro – right away
- Bacán – great/terrific (used for people and things)
- Bencina – gasoline/petrol
- Buen finde – have a good weekend (abbreviation of buen fin de semana)
- Cachar (cachai) – to understand or ‘get,’ and used in the same way as “you know” at the end of a spoken sentence.
- Colectivo – a shared taxi with a fixed route
- Cuento del tío – scam
- Cuatico – something considered weird
- Filo – no problem, whatever
- Fregado – an adjective used to describe a tough or complicated situation
- Gallo/galla – a guy/girl (literally means ‘rooster’)
- Cabro/cabra – a guy/girl (literally means ‘goat’ and is used just like gallo/galla)
- Harto – adverb used to mean ‘a lot’ in Chile
- Junior – the office assistant
- Po – Chilean version of pues, a common interjection in Spanish
- Porfa/porfis – short for por favor, ‘please’
- Porsiaca – short for por si acaso, ‘just in case’
- San Lunes – ‘Saint Monday,’ a phrase humorously used to describe when someone takes off work because he or she was not able to recover from the weekend.
- Sepa moya – ‘who knows?’
- Vale – OK
- Ya – pronounced like the German ja; means ‘OK’ or indicates that one is following along in a conversation.
Learn more words and Chilean expressions
Chilean Spanish tends to translate — or use the original name in Spanish — for foreign words. It is rare to hear a Chilean switching between both languages. There are, however, several words or expressions that have been included into local lingo, such as email, happy hour and jeans.