By James Bargent
Love, whether a life-long partnership or a night-long fling, is never easy. Throw in a language barrier and culture gap and you’re lost in a strange new game with strange new rules. Is that hand on your knee a flirtatious come-on, or a culturally distinct approach to personal space? Is splitting the bill a nod to equal gender relations, an unforgivable challenge to your date’s masculinity or the sign of an incorrigible tight-wad? Will an invite back to your hotel lead to a night of passion or a slap in the face and a condemnation to the fires of hell for your sinning ways?
Latin America, though, is rightly renowned for its fiery passions and beautiful people, and to miss out on this side of the region’s culture through faux-pas fear is far more unforgivable than embarrassing yourself with culturally inappropriate body language. So, to guide you through this minefield, Nearshore Americas caught up with some American and British expats, currently living in Latin America, to seek their advice on the ways of cross-cultural Latin love.
For the business-tripper looking for love, the first challenge is knowing where to look. While the relative calm of a laid-back cocktail bar might appeal, the best approach is to head towards the sound of a pounding salsa beat and shuffling couple feet, according to James Flood, a 30-year-old British who has had numerous romantic (or so he claims) dalliances with local Latinas in his travels in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Cuba and Colombia.
“Get a couple of basic salsa lessons – seriously,” he advised. “A good way to meet people, because of the dancing culture here, is just to pick a partner and ask her to dance with you.”
Even if you don’t have time to squeeze in salsa classes, it is still worth the effort to at least try and get your rusty hips and leaden feet moving, according to James. “Your foreigner inability can be charming to the right person,” he added.
However, be prepared to develop a thick skin, as not every girl is prepared to have her toes splayed by clumsy gringo feet. “If they’re not happy dancing with you, you will know it because they will be rolling their eyes. People here aren’t scared to express themselves,” said James.
For foreign women, dancing presents a similar opportunity but also a dilemma – who asks who? Georgina Blair is a young American professional living in Medellin, Colombia, and she first met her Colombian boyfriend a year ago when she broke with convention and asked him to dance.
According to Georgina, foreign women are given more leeway to break with traditional gender roles and dating etiquette as they are viewed differently by Latin men. “Colombian men see foreign women almost in a different category,” she said. However, while this may open some doors it may see others shut rather quickly. “(Men here) are definitely intimidated by me,” she added.
For some Latin men, these differences can be quite a shock, Georgina said. “For Colombian women it is more about feeling good about yourself based on how well you fulfill these stereotypes of being a nice girl,” she said. “Foreign women aren’t nice girls, they are loud and demanding.”
While an invitation to dance offers the perfect ‘in’ with the average Latino, for those with a fear of rhythm there are still alternatives to pounding cheek-to-cheek musical passion/sweaty palm grasping and awkward stumbling. And even without the preliminary close quarters inspection offered by a dance, the whole ‘is/he isn’t she/he?’ game can be a lot easier to play in Latin America.
“With girls here, if they’re really interested – it’s obvious,” said James. However, once you note that interest, it’s crucial to act on it without delay or you risk losing out, he added. “If you catch a woman’s eye, don’t dwell in it or keep catching her eye. Just go straight over.
“That’s the culture here, it’s more direct. That doesn’t mean be aggressive or pushy, say sleazy things to them or invite them straight back to your room but if you’re interested the best thing is just go straight over and say ‘can I buy you a drink?’
Once contact has been made with the object of your desires, you are running a whole new cultural gauntlet – one in which body language can play a bigger role that what you actually say
Men and Flirting
A lack of directness is certainly not an issue for most Latin men, according to Beth Stevenson, an American veteran of the Argentine dating game after living and working in Buenos Aires for a year and a half. “Argentine men are really flirtatious,” she said. “They do not leave you alone, which is annoying but they’re very charming.”
Being naturally extroverted and flirtatious also means Latin men can get away with behavior that would not wash in the U.S. “What we expect from guys in Latin America is completely different,” Beth said. “If in a bar here a guy whispers ‘you’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,’ you’re like ‘oh, thanks’. But if a guy did that in the States I’d be like ‘you’re pathetic’.”
Once contact has been made with the object of your desires, you are running a whole new cultural gauntlet – one in which body language can play a bigger role that what you actually say. The key differences for travelers from more ‘distant’ cultures are in the Latin approach to eye contact and physical contact – lots of both. An aversion to either may well be interpreted as a lack of interest – or worse.
However, while a critical part of flirting, you should avoid reading too much into the hand on your knee or the lingering gaze, according to James. “Just because a girl is being touchy feely it doesn’t mean she’s definitely interested in that way,” he said. “For a lot of people here, personal space exists on a much smaller scale.”
As the night draws on a new challenge may arrive with the bill – who pays? For James, the answer for gentlemen is clear – get your wallet out. “Women here expect you to spend money,” he said. “The whole machismo thing does tend to carry over – it’s not that women are all gold-diggers, it’s just part of the culture.”
According to Beth, the only real option for women is to check their misgivings about the machismo roots of man-pays-all dates at the door and enjoy the free ride. “At first I resisted but it’s such a pain in the ass, and really so hard to get a man not to pay for you that it’s almost embarrassing,” she said. “Eventually I just stopped and enjoyed getting free wine and nice meals.”
With financial matters settled, there only remains the delicate subject of how quickly to proceed with your new-found love interest. For ladies in a hurry, there should be no problems convincing the average Latin man that time is short. However, they should be wary of Latin Lotharios who assume all foreign women are easy prey. “They probably think you’re more ready to have sex faster,” said Georgina.
Most men, however, will have to be patient, according to James. “The truth is – one night stands here are rare in my experience – it’s more like the second or third date,” he said. “So if someone is here on a short trip the chances of them going out to a bar and taking a girl home that night, are very slim. But take them out the next night…”
(Note: All names have been changed to protect the love lives of the people involved.)