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Guatemala Culture is Polite

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GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala- I rode out of Antigua, Guatemala on a local bus to Guatemala City yesterday morning at 6:30 AM. I paid 8 quetzales for the ride — a tourist shuttle would have cost 60. My wife and I took our seats, we were the first passengers on the bus, and as it rolled out of town, the ayudante hung out the door yelling, “Guate, Guate” and passengers began jumping on board.

I rose with a start when I noticed something that each passenger would do once they got on the bus: they would sit down on the school bus style seats and move all the way to the window – allowing other passengers to easily next to them. I watched as the bus orderly filled and unfilled. Nobody sat with their legs in the aisles, nobody took the aisle side of an empty seat and forced other passengers to climb over them to sit down, no, there was an order to the process, and the bus ran efficiently.

There was a method to loading and unloading this local bus in Guatemala rather than a madness.

This method may seem small, but it was an opening, a peak of sorts, through the hatch way and into a culture. Many other aspects of Guatemalan culture are similar: this is not really a “gimme, gimme” sort of country. I have never once been bothered here by anybody, never even have been pecked at too heavily by touts or hotel runners.

This is a good country for travel.

Culture does not need to always be smart, it just needs to be institutionalized, common, the rule — no thought is required. Culture is perhaps only the basic mechanics and symbols of life that people of a given group, in a given place, do in common and understand as being normal. Institutionalized stupidity is just as often the rule of a culture as the exception. I am surprised that I raise my eyebrows and get bright eyed when a cultural anecdote makes sense, shows foresight, or defers personal preference for group comfort.

It should be taken for granted that people take the inside seat of a local bus so that other passengers can board and sit down with ease. It should be so normal that I don’t even notice it, let alone write about it. I do not know how many times in how many places I have sat and watched as bus and train passengers try to take up two seats for themselves by attempting to inhibit other passengers from sitting next to them. I do this sometimes, too. Guatemala is not like this, Guatemala culture is polite — the people move over and let other people sit next to them, they stand in line, they don’t try to take more for themselves than what they deserve, they take what they need and leave the rest of the seat for other passengers.

This is culture, it is my impression that this is done without thinking. If they thought about it they would probably try to take the whole seat for themselves like I do. USA culture teaches that we should think about the other guy — but in thinking about it we realize that if we sit in the aisle seat with our bags on the seat next to us, and try to look menacing, that we may be able to ward off another passenger from sitting next to us and get more room for ourselves. Many cultures do this, too.

Every so often you look up from your daydreams and you see something in a culture that is right on — it make sense, it is smart, socially minded, and polite. As I watched the passengers get on that local bus going to Guatemala City I realized that this is a very polite culture. I am not sure if I really recognized this the last time I traveled in this country.

It is much easier to recognize rudeness in a culture, as politeness is often too subtle to notice. It is much easier to notice an elbow in your gut and rush towards the bus door than neatly ordered lines where everybody waits their turn and move over to the window seat so you can sit down without hassle.

People expect politeness, and when you get what you expect it is often difficult to realize it. When everyone around you is polite, the road before you is wide open — you can think about other things than how you plan to keep the guy behind you from cutting in front of you in line or if the restaurant is going to cheat you on your bill.

It is often only when you are kicked in the balls that you notice when a culture has the tendency towards stupidity, or rudeness.

I have written before that culture is perhaps a running definition of stupidity — as culture is often implicit action done without thought that is considered normal in a particular group at a particular time. But I must take this line back — at least halfway — as culture has the tendency to be intelligent, efficient, wise, and polite as well: it is just sometimes more difficult to notice its more intelligent designs.

As a whole, culture is just the tendencies of a certain group of people in a certain place. Culture is the interplay of people acting in accords to how they expect the people around them to act.

Culture is just a tendency, it is just a pattern. I write today that Guatemalan culture is polite, but I know that tomorrow I could get elbowed in the gut and kicked in the balls. Every pattern gives way for occasional ripples, but knowing the pattern that lays before me allows me to take bearings on the sea that I travel through.

If I can generalize my surroundings I can prepare for what may come.

Though if I do meet a ripple in the pattern tomorrow, if I am elbowed in the gut and kicked in the balls, I will still say that Guatemala culture is polite.

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Filed under: Central America, Culture and Society, Guatemala

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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