Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Culture of Slow...

With the exception of the dangerously fast buses that I always seem to find myself on, everything in Latin America moves incredibly slow.  There is a culture of slow here that seems to be intrinsic in the lives of most.  It is both a blessing and a curse. 

This culture of slow entails more than just a lack of urgency in the everyday actions of people; it entails an outlook and a way of life.  It includes those slow walking people on the sidewalk that I struggle to pass, but it also includes the idea that what one says is not necessarily what one will do.  I might be accused of generalizing, but after three years of experience in Latin America I’ve learned that when somebody here tells you that they will do something you can never fully be sure that they will follow through.  This is not an intentional thing - people will say things here just to be agreeable and amicable.  Over the last three years I’ve asked many random strangers for directions or information, and only once can I remember someone saying they do not know.  Rather, people will just say something in order to seem helpful, even if they actually have no idea.  Such things are all a part of this culture of slow that I am attempting to illustrate here.

I have lived much of my life in a rush, always wanting to grow up quickly, to get to the next destination, to arrive early.  For me one of the greatest challenges of living and working in Latin America has been adjusting to the culture of slow.  Working in a small community has really brought out my frustration.  Every meeting that I schedule with people, no matter how much I emphasize the importance of beginning on time, everyone shows up at least thirty minutes later than the agreed hour.  When the meetings finally begin we end up talking about different things until everyone is either tired or thirty minutes late for their next meeting and we end up accomplishing nothing.  One can only imagine then, the frustration that accompanies somebody working in the field of development, where change is the desired goal of all parties involved yet it comes ever so slow.

I find myself wondering if a part of the lack of development in this part of the world is a result of this culture of slow, indeed scholars have attempted to argue along such lines.  But the more that I think about it and the longer that I live here, I come to realize that it is likely the other way around, and that this culture of slow is the result of a lack of development more than anything else.  The culture of slow causes its limitations on certain aspects of life, but it needn’t be a pejorative.  Despite my many grievances, this culture of slow is no doubt what causes Latin Americans to be some of the happiest people in the world.  I recently read an article about levels of happiness in different countries around the world, and eight of the top ten happiest countries were Latin American.  Despite high levels of inequality and poverty, a lack of basic social services and infrastructure, and often rampant crime, people in Latin America are simply happier.  In the “developed” world we have become fixated on hard work and punctual meetings and “growth”, but often at the detriment of happy lives.  Here in Latin America the culture of slow allows for leisure and recreation despite the fact that people have to work hard just to put food on the table.  It is an insight on life that we have somehow lost in the developed world.

I’ve tried many times to adjust to the culture of slow, but I think it will always be something foreign to me, a cultural trait that I will never pick up, and it is a shame.
They say that people in parts of Latin America live longer than anywhere else.  Indeed I’ve met many people that I believed were fifty years old only to find out that they were seventy.  The culture of slow is far reaching.  So for those that come to Latin America and inevitably become frustrated with the culture of slow, be sure to deeply consider what it ultimately entails.

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