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Culture Shock: 10 Things You Need to Know About Costa Rican Culture

Costa Rica is a unique and fascinating culture. U.S. expats may need time to acclimate and grow to appreciate our customs. Here are 10 of the biggest changes you should be prepared for. Don’t worry - you’ll eventually get used to them.

1. Differences in Family Surnames

In the United States, most women assume their husband's surname after getting married. Children also usually take the father's surname. This practice originates from medieval coverture laws in England, and remains a tradition in many other Western countries to this day.

Coverture is much less common in Costa Rica, so women almost always keep their own surnames. They can choose to use a variation of their husband’s surname with the prefix "de." However, very few women choose to do so.

Children receive a surname that combines their mother’s and father's names. The father's last name is listed first and the mother’s maiden name is listed after. When people sign formal documents, they often use the initials of their mother’s maiden name at the end.

2. The Culture is Highly Bureaucratic

The Costa Rican legal system is generally more laissez-faire than the legal system in the United States. However, many businesses tend to adopt convoluted and bureaucratic processes, which can be difficult for new expats to navigate. When you first move to Costa Rica, these rules may seem unnecessary and a nuisance to navigate. However, Costa Ricans don't mind them very much because their bureaucracy is so strongly ingrained in the culture. The difference is partially due to the fact that Costa Ricans don't obsess about time nearly as much as people in the United States do, so they don’t mind sitting through these processes. One expat tells the story of how his debit card got eaten by an ATM, so the bank made him go through a very long, arduous process to get a replacement. This is fairly typical of banking procedures in Costa Rica. The process is usually much faster in United States.

3. Greater Acceptance of Women’s Bodily Rights

American culture still objectifies women’s bodies. In some ways, Costa Rica has a more egalitarian perspective that can be more welcoming to female expats. The biggest difference is that Costa Rican women aren’t expected to meet a specific body type. Meanwhile, the United States places a lot of pressure on women to be thin. Women in Costa Rica don't experience the same pressure. As a result, Costa Rican women are less likely to develop eating disorders and other mental illnesses caused by a poor body image.

4. Immediate Burials

Despite living in such a bureaucratic society, Costa Ricans don't spend nearly as much time burying the dead. In the United States, when someone passes away:

However, while the process is much quicker, funerals can also be more painful and much more emotional in Costa Rica:

  • The person has usually been dead for less than a day, so their loved ones are still in shock

  • People tend to express their feelings much more openly, which can be transparent at a funeral

  • Costa Rica has a very collectivist culture, so more people may come to pay their respects

5. Children Have Their Own Holiday

The United States has holidays to honor mothers and fathers. Meanwhile, Costa Rica celebrates a holiday just for children. Children's Day was established in 1946. The purpose of the holiday is to recognize the needs and rights of children. It focuses on a number of issues children have faced over the years, including:

  • Protection from labor exploitation

  • Furthering the need for quality education

  • Protection from abuse

There are a number of things that Costa Ricans do to celebrate Children's Day. Many businesses offer Children's Day sales, and families often celebrate by purchasing gifts and taking their children out to eat.

6. Commercialism is Beginning to Thrive

The United States is considered one of the most decadent countries in the world. Traditionally, Costa Ricans have focused more on quality of life than on material possessions. However, commercialism is becoming more widely accepted. You may be surprised by the number of shopping centers in Costa Rica, especially if you live in the Central Valley.

7. Differences in Driving and Navigation

Navigating Costa Rica can pose a challenge for new residents and tourists alike. However, you’ll need to get use to the rules and customs of the road while living in Costa Rica. To start, locations aren't marked clearly. There are few street signs pointing to specific locations, and addresses are also less likely to be marked. People also follow different customs for giving directions. In the United States, people use a point of reference while giving directions. For example, they may say, “After you go down that street two blocks, you will see a large white church on the left.” In Costa Rica, the locals usually just provide a general direction and the number of blocks. Most people assume a block is 100 meters. It can take awhile to get acclimated to this system. However, expats can learn how to navigate Costa Rica with ease. The biggest challenge in Costa Rica will be getting used to driving without a GPS, because the technology isn't nearly as reliable.

8. People Live on “Tico Time”

The United States and many other countries value promptness. This isn't the case in Costa Rica at all.

It's very common for people to be at least half an hour late everywhere they go. Few people are offended by tardiness, because it's assumed that most people will be late. Emily Shea, the blogger behind Travel Mother, wrote a guest post in The Costa Rica Star about her experience moving to Costa Rica. Shea said that getting used to Tico Time was one of the biggest transitions. Here are a couple of quotes summarizing her experiences: 

“My tutor didn’t show up,” I mention. ”Of course they didn’t!” they laugh back, “It’s Saturday and nice out, they went to the beach, Pura Vida!” 

“She told me the seat cushions would be done on Monday, but when I went to pick them up, she said to come back the following Sunday,” I perplexedly complain. ”Why not? You’re on Tico Time…she probably didn’t feel like making them this week,” they reason. 

“The internet company said they’d send someone out yesterday, but no one showed up?”

All of these people fulfilled their obligations, but in a much different time frame than Shea expected. You'll need to change your expectations about timeliness when you move to Costa Rica. You can either be frustrated that everyone is always late, or simply learn to go with the flow.

9. Acquaintances Greet Each Other With Kisses

Costa Ricans are very informal while greeting their friends. It’s common for people to greet each other with a kiss on the cheek. It isn’t socially acceptable for men to kiss each other as a greeting, but women kiss each other on the cheek all the time. Business meetings are understandably more formal. People generally shake hands in a business setting.

10. Non-Confrontational Society

Costa Rica is a friendly and polite culture. People tend to be less confrontational than people in the United States, which can ironically be difficult for most Americans to get used to. People are reluctant to show anger in public, even if they have a legitimate reason to be upset. They are taught to settle their differences in a more laid-back way. This doesn’t mean that Costa Ricans don’t rebel against injustice. They have made tremendous progress in many areas (such as advancing women’s rights and receiving more protections for workers) over the past century, because people have been willing to stand up for their principles. However, their protests tend to be more organized and diplomatic. The recent taxi union protests against Uber are a perfect example. While the protests in Mexico turned violent, they were more peaceful in Costa Rica. This exemplifies the cultural differences between Costa Rica and many other countries.

Don’t Suffer from Culture Shock

Moving to a new country will always prove challenging. Customs in Costa Rica are especially different from those in the United States, so U.S. expats may be overwhelmed at first. Don’t get too stressed while traveling to Costa Rica. You will find that people are actually very warm and accepting, and will be patient while you make the transition.

What do you think the biggest change will be when you move to Costa Rica? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below: