Guatemala special feature: The Culture and Etiquette

Guatemala culture and etiquette, Jürg Widmer Probst Guatemala

Guatemala in 2020 is a fascinating mix of influences, representative of its complex history. The largest economy in Central America, the country’s biggest economic driver is tourism. In the first of a series of special features, this blog covers the culture and etiquette of Guatemalan society.

Jürg Widmer Probst Guatemala special feature: all about Guatemala culture and etiquette

Nestled between the Pacific and the Caribbean, this beautiful, mountainous country is home to more than 17 million people. In 1900, just 885,000 people lived here, making Guatemala the fastest growing population in the Western Hemisphere last century.

And today, Guatemala’s population is made up from a number of different ethnic, racial and cultural groups. It’s worth breaking this down using the 2018 Census data by the National Institute of Statistics (INE), as the influences on today’s cultural and etiquette is significant.

In 2018, the census showed that more than half (56%) of Guatemala’s population is Ladino, which reflects a mix of European and indigenous heritage. Indigenous Guatemalans account for 43.6% and of these, 41.7% are Maya people. In turn, this category breaks down to K’iche, Q’eqchi, Mam and Kaqchikel people.

Most of the Ladino descend from Spanish and German settlers in Guatemala, with others a mix of Dutch, Belgian, Swiss, French, British, Italian, Danish and Russian. All of whom have contributed to the cultural mix of Guatemala in the 21st century. The official language is Spanish, which is spoken by around 93% of the people as a first or second language. All of which explains why the culture of Guatemala today is so eclectic and fascinating.

Guatemalan people are friendly, warm and welcoming

First and foremost, Guatemala is a friendly and warm country. There are still rural areas that are getting used to so many travellers coming from other countries. And there are varying degrees of formality in rural and urban settings. Openness, politeness and friendliness are mixed with a certain formality.

One of the most obvious examples for visitors of this formality can be seen in the way Guatemalan people greet each other. While Europeans and Americans generally use laid back greetings, it’s more formal in Guatemala. Men tend to always shake hands when greeting ach other, and women favour air kissing n the Spanish style. This is usually right cheek first, but if you’re not sure, let them take the lead. Direct eye contact is also the norm.

While ‘hola’ is an acceptable greeting with people you’ve met before, for a first meeting the more formal ‘mucho gusto’ is better. This means ‘good to meet you’. You will also hear Guatemalans say ‘buenos dias’ in the morning, ‘buenas noches’ in the evening and ‘buenas tardes’ in the afternoon. In rural areas, people will greet each other with one of these when passing in the street. In cities, you’ll hear these greetings when people head into an office or other place of business.

Guatemala retains a formal and conservative edge

In general, Guatemala is more formal and a rather conservative country. It’s also class-conscious and a certain level of grooming and dress is generally expected. Visitors will notice the relative formality in dress if they head to a shopping mall in Guatemala City. Trainers and shorts are usually thought too casual for most events, and visitors may be surprised by this. However, this is changing, and the younger generation tend to follow a more Americanised dress code. If you head to a club, don’t wear trainers though as you won’t get in. Away from the cities, you will see people dressing much more casually and in a more relaxed way.

Taking photographs when you visit Guatemala is not as straightforward as in some other countries. It’s always tempting to just take snaps of people, but always ask first in Guatemala. This is particularly true if you’re up in the Highlands where Maya people live. Mayan people consider photographs without permission offensive, as they impact their spiritual beliefs.

The best way to approach this is to get to know people first. If you want to take photographs of Mayan people or their village, for instance, chat to them and ask them about themselves. If you do this, you’ll more than likely find some Mayan people who will be happy for you to take their picture. When talking to Mayan people, don’t assume they speak Spanish, by the way. There are 31 different languages used by the Mayan culture, so tread carefully and don’t assume.

Guatemalan culture is a mix of formality and friendliness

If you’re visiting Mayan holy sites and churches in Guatemala, always make sure you take on board the dress code. And if you buy some traditional clothing to wear, take the time to understand the significance of the textile used. There are different patterns associated with specific regions and cultural groups, so it’s a good idea to be aware.

Despite the relative formality of the Guatemalan culture, they are very relaxed when it comes to turning up on time to events. It’s more common across Europe and America to make every effort to either be early or bang on time, but it’s more relaxed in Guatemala, as it is in a number of Central and Southern American countries.

In general, before you visit Guatemala it’s definitely worth checking the etiquette and culture of the region you’re travelling to. It will enhance your experience and general enjoyment of your visit to this beautiful and fascinating country.