Colombian Cultural Literacy 101

by Matthew Skibiel, FCLC ‘21


Bless you, right? Not really.

Learning a language is one thing, but learning a language in another culture is something entirely different.

My first month in Bogotá, I made sure to respond to every sneeze—of friends, strangers, even my own—with a cheery “salud!”  That is how I was raised; it would never occur to me to do otherwise. Nobody, however, ever blessed me back. Not a single salud.  To this day, I do not think a single Colombian has ever responded to a single one of my sneezes. “The nerve!” I would think to myself.  

One day, I could not stand it anymore.  I did not understand how the entire Colombian population I had encountered, from the mountains of Bogotá to the beaches of Cartagena, could be so apathetic in the face of another’s sneeze!  In class, two friends were talking face to face, and the one sneezed, but not a word came from the other.  

“Excuse me,” I asked, “why is it that you do not bless each other when you sneeze?”  

They laughed, “why do you?”

I was stupefied.  Why do I? I remember salud being on the very first vocabulary list I ever received during my first Spanish class in middle school.  I really thought about it. Why do I? Why do I bless people when they sneeze? What could that even mean?  I remember reading an article online about it being a short prayer pleading that God protect the sneezer from sickness or death.  It comes from the original phrase “May God bless you.” Interesting.

In Spanish, the response we learn for someone who has sneezed, salud, directly translates to health.  I learned in middle school that it can also be used as a toast before a round of drinks, though Colombians seem to prefer a more ritualized: 

¡pa’rriba, pa’bajo, pa’ centro, pa’dentro!

Up, down, to the middle, now inside as the glasses trace the path of the cheers.  I had to learn that cheer here, as my simple “¡salud!” never seemed to suffice with my Colombian friends.  (If you ever travel to Colombia, you are already two steps ahead. You can thank me later.)

So, what is my point in saying all of this?  No, I am not looking for a pity salud to make up for my several, several sneezes which went unblessed.  My point is something every person learning a language should know: learning a language is not memorizing vocabulary lists.  Learning a language is not being able to recount grammar rules, nor is it the ability to produce perfect orthography. Most importantly, and I cannot stress this enough: you never learn a language.  Instead, you are always in the process of learning.  

This process is painful; trust me.  It is embarrassing. I remember telling one of my high school Spanish teachers that I had 17 anuses (that cursed ñ can make all the difference), and more recently I asked for a penis instead of a straw at a restaurant here in Bogotá.  Here’s a tip: always search the proper term for straw when traveling to a Spanish-speaking country.  A simple Google search could save you tons of embarrassment; in Colombia, you would say un pitillo.  Look, now you are three steps ahead.  You are so welcome.  

More funny anecdotes, you ask?  Sure. On my first day of class, my teacher asked what I believed to be “who here is from outside of Bogotá?”  I shot my hand up; surely as the only gringo in the class I was the furthest from being a rolo: someone from Bogotá.  

“From the United States!” I exclaimed.  

“Oh, you bike all the way from the United States every day for class?” she asked.

“What,” I replied audibly, in English.

As it turns out, she asked who rode their bike to campus.  I was mortified. How I understood what I understood: that remains completely beyond me.  I switched out of the class that exact same day.  

As demonstrated in my sneezing epiphany, a language is not just which words to say; a language also encapsulates a culture, which implies proper words to say, proper actions to perform, and when to say or do them.  I learned Colombian greetings and farewells the hard way as well. One day, I was invited to a family celebration of a daughter who had just graduated. The whole extended family was there; there were Germans, Spaniards, Canadians, and Colombians from every stretch of the country.  And there was me, the American. Imagine my shock as every woman came up to kiss me hello, and I was advised to stand to shake every single man’s hand present. Keep in mind, I knew probably about 4 of the 50 people attending. I got the hang of it though, and soon I knew exactly how to turn my cheek to greet the women, and I understood when to stand and just how to shake the men’s hands with a polite mucho gusto.  Then came the time to say goodbye.  I was so confident, until I was approached by a very old man.  Caught up in all the farewells and decepted by my confidence, I kissed him.  On the cheek. He looked at me, and I looked at him. There was an awkward pause, and then he left.  Everyone at the table laughed; men typically do not kiss each other on the cheek unless they are related: especially not older, more conservative men with complete strangers.  This poor guy received way more than what he expected, and I received enough embarrassment to think each farewell or greeting through thoroughly before executing it. No vocabulary list could have saved me there; I had to live it to learn it.  Dear reader, I do believe you are five steps ahead now. Just go ahead and book your ticket, you are now an expert in Colombian etiquette.  

Amidst all this embarrassment, however, I found a bit of relief atop Monserrate, a chapel 3,152 meters above sea level with an amazing view overlooking the massive city of Bogotá.  Remember what I said about learning a language as an unending process? Just ask native speakers. My sister had come to visit me, and atop the mountain we decided to order two fruit juices.  Sidenote: the fruits here are superb. My sister decided on blackberry, and I decided on soursop. As the waitress poured the blackberry juice, she forgot which I had ordered.  

“Guayabo, cierto?”  she asked.

She turned beet red.  Not only had she confused the fruit—guava for soursop—she had put an o at the end of the word instead of an a: the word for the fruit is guayaba.

“Hangover, right?” she asked.

I did not find it to be that embarrassing; a simple o instead of an a is really not that big of a deal.  She seemed to think so. She apologized several times, and nervously laughed during the entire encounter.  My sister asked what the confusion was, and I explained.  

As I explained the simple mistake, I realized how many times I had done the exact same, and how embarrassed I had been.  As I said, the difference between the words year and anus is a simple ñ versus nAño and ano are really so similar.  Looking back, my mistake ordering a straw was part of this same learning process, but now I can order a straw in any Spanish-speaking country knowing exactly what I am actually asking for.  Really, test me. I have made a multitude of mistakes throughout my years of learning this language, but so have the people learning it as their first language.  

So yea, maybe I have kissed a very old man, and maybe my professor that day thought I could easily take home the gold in an Olympic cycling event.  Often times I have to smile at the Uber driver, pretending I understand exactly what he is saying, when in reality I only catch a total of three words in an hour long conversation.  I was surprised to discover that you address your professors by their first names, as I had avoided addressing them at all up until three months into the semester. And I will not even begin to explain how confusing it is that three thousand five hundred pesos equals one American dollar, so a bottle of soda shows up on the bill as 6.500 COP.  I am thankful for these experiences, however, as I recognize them as steps in a long learning process.  

I just hope I relearn to say “bless you” when I get home.