Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Cultural Information - Guatemala

Country Facts

Links to the best Web sites for virtually every country in the world.

Cultural Information

Answers to your intercultural questions from a Canadian and a local point of view.

Cultural Information - Conversations

Question:

I am meeting someone for the first time and I want to make a good impression. What would be good discussion topics?

Local Perspective:

Today’s Guatemalan society can be seen in a development perspective in which it must accommodate limited modernity in the urban areas and vestiges of the past in the countryside. The on-going violence in political and social relations is the result of a history of ethnic exclusion, which is on-going.

When first meeting a Guatemalan national, social conventions dictate that you first broach general topics of discussion (family, work, tourist places, trips, etc) since certain topics of conversation (relations between the Ladinos and the Mayas, politics, racism, etc.) may be problematic. In the present day, these topics may be very sensitive since the country has just recently ended a civil war (1963-1996), and the transition to the peace process is still full of obstacles. In this respect, it is important to note that, during the civil war, the Mayan population was the victim of massacres and acts of genocide by the Guatemalan state, which is governed by an elite Ladino that remains in power.

Canadian Perspective:

First, it depends on who you are meeting. If they are middle-class, in business, or a professional, they are likely to be ladino—of Spanish (or perhaps German, or often Mayan) descent. They will speak very rapid Spanish, be proud of their town/ country, and often quite sensitive to any criticism from outsiders.

Safe topics of conversation would be the architectural and natural beauty of the country, places of work and residence, personal travel experiences, and soccer. More sensitive topics of discussion would be anything political, especially concerning the recent history of the country. You could probably discuss the peace accords, although this might invoke a degree of cynicism. Discussions of human rights, Mayan culture, or poverty may lead to responses that would be culturally or socially difficult for a Canadian to accept. Racism toward the Mayan population is prevalent among ladinos in my experience, although there are always exceptions.

A Mayan will tend to be more cautious conduct in general. Most Mayans will avoid sensitive topics of conversation, and will generally respond positively and with deference to whatever one says. They will be genuinely fascinated with information about Canada and Canadian lifestyles, and appreciative of positive comments about Mayan culture.

Since most business and professional relationships are with ladinos, the comments below relate to ladinos unless otherwise indicated.

On the whole, Guatemalans are cheerful and friendly. They like to talk and laugh, and they will in most cases be very hospitable and helpful when asked for assistance. For a positive reaction, or for humour, one could talk about soccer or the winter weather in Canada.

Submit Your Comments

Cultural Information - Communication Styles

Question:

What do I need to know about verbal and non-verbal communications?

Local Perspective:

For Guatemalans, physical contact and related gestures depend on the level of trust between individuals and thereby demonstrate the level of comfort. The way in which people touch differs according to the person’s regional and ethnic origins. In a more familiar context, Guatemalans generally touch when speaking with one another; women even more so. Between friends, the amount of personal space is a lot less than what is common in Canada. The use of space can differ greatly from the city to the country. City-dwellers often stand about an arms-length away when they first meet; whereas in the country, the distance is often closer. Gestures and facial expressions are usually well accepted in society in general. Nevertheless, pay attention to the level of your voice since a very loud voice may be seen as disrespectful. Eye contact is very important for Ladinos and less so for Mayas.

Upon meeting someone, greet the person by shaking hands (man or woman). Those who have attained a good level of trust may occasionally kiss each other on the cheek, which is more common between women and somewhat less between men and women. Between men, trust is displayed by a hug. In the workplace, the use of gestures depends on the degree of trust between individuals.

Guatemalan custom has it that, when getting up from the table to leave a restaurant, it is appropriate to say "bon appétit" to others, even if they are strangers.

Canadian Perspective:

These issues are the same as in Canada with the following exceptions. First, eye contact with Mayans is less than with ladinos. Mayans tend to be very respectful, even deferential, when dealing with Westerners.

Second, Guatemalans are very polite in general, so one’s courtesy and good manners should definitely not be left at home.

Finally, ladinos are much more tactile than Mayans. In particular, the Mayan handshake is quite limp—just touching really—by comparison to North American custom. A firm handshake is appropriate with a ladino, a crushing handshake would be inappropriate with a Mayan.

Submit Your Comments

Cultural Information - Display of Emotion

Question:

Are public displays of affection, anger or other emotions acceptable?

Local Perspective:

The general rule is that public displays of affection are well accepted. Sadness or other kinds of emotions are also sometimes well accepted, depending on the situation.

Canadian Perspective:

One will experience a much greater degree of emotion among ladinos than in Canada. Women may encounter a great deal of amorous courting, to put it mildly, from Guatemalan men. Public displays of emotion are much more common in ladino culture than in Mayan culture. Mayans will be more stand-offish and conservative in all respects.

Submit Your Comments

Cultural Information - Dress, Punctuality & Formality

Question:

What should I know about the workplace environment (deadlines, dress, formality, etc.)?

Local Perspective:

People tend to dress formally for work, even conservatively. Many colleagues address each other informally (using "tú" for "you") while others use the more formal manner ("usted" for "you"). It depends on the nature of interpersonal relations.

When speaking to their immediate supervisor they use the more formal "usted" followed by the person’s professional title. In the private sector, people are punctual, although the notion of punctuality may be different in the city compared to the countryside. While punctuality is generally greater in the city, it is rare that you would have to wait more than thirty minutes in the countryside. Work schedules vary according to the climate. Absenteeism is very frequent in the public service and much less so in private companies. More and more often, private companies are taking on commitments that have set deadlines.

Canadian Perspective:

Dress formally to gain respect. Guatemalans are normally tidy, clean, and well-dressed. Many Canadians dress too informally by Guatemalan standards. It is okay to dress casually, however it should be a formal casual, not frumpy.

Also, speak formally (i.e. usted) when dealing with persons in a business or professional circumstance. In personal situations, is absolutely fine unless the person is otherwise one’s significant senior or superior.

Despite the stereotypes, I found the Guatemalans tended to be more punctual than ex-pats. It is advisable that you be on time for meetings, and allow more time than usual to get there since transportation and traffic conditions are less predictable.

On the other hand, there is a slower pace to work and life in general in Guatemala (at least compared to central Canada). This is often more a reflection of infrastructure limits than some inherent cultural trait.

Submit Your Comments

Cultural Information - Preferred Managerial Qualities

Question:

What qualities are most highly regarded in a local superior/manager? How will I know how my staff view me?

Local Perspective:

In Guatemalan society, personal relations and acquaintances from networking are very important when it comes to making appointments to upper level positions. In this way, a superior is recognised for his position on the ladder of social hierarchy and for a combination of academic and professional skills related to his/her experience.

The general rule is that bosses keep a lot of distance from their employees. The degree of familiarity is a lot less than what it often is in Canada. When the manager is not from the area, he should pay particular attention to the already existing relationships between different employees in the field and most definitely try to gain their trust by showing them an open mind and approachability. The best way to find out a local staff person’s viewpoint is to ask their opinion.

Canadian Perspective:

The working relationships tend to be hierarchical. Hiring and promotion depends very much on connections. So those working for you will certainly be trying to please; however, I would expect, they would also admire acts of fairness and objectivity with respect to hiring and promotion in their work environment.

It would generally be easier to be to work for an ex-pat supervisor than a Guatemalan supervisor, if only because the cultural communication would be much easier. In working for a Guatemalan supervisor, education and strong work ethic strike me as the most sought-after qualities.

Submit Your Comments

Cultural Information - Hierarchy and Decision-making

Question:

In the workplace, how are decisions taken and by whom? Is it acceptable to go to my immediate supervisor for answers or feedback?

Local Perspective:

Generally, executives and intermediaries make decisions in the workplace in a centralized fashion. New ideas and initiatives are often expressed by middle management, which acts as a liaison between workers and administration. It is advisable to consult your immediate supervisor for answers or feedback.

Canadian Perspective:

The decision-making process will be hierarchical. I would be very careful about doing things that are perceived as going behind the back of a supervisor, or over their head, because this will be noticed. Going to one’s immediate supervisor, however, will be entirely appropriate, as long as one doesn’t push too much for answers or feedback when they are not at first provided. I do not think that some of the more recent management philosophies based on cultivating "teamwork" in the workplace have made quite so many inroads in the Guatemala as in Canada.

Submit Your Comments

Cultural Information - Religion, Class, Ethnicity, & Gender

Question:

Briefly describe the local culture’s attitudes regarding the following: Gender, Class, Religion and Ethnicity. What impact would the above attitudes have on the workplace?

Local Perspective:


Gender:
Guatemalan society can be characterized as a patriarchal society. Relations between men and women are unequal, even if, in the city, the journey toward equality is progressing little by little. In the country, women’s status is still uncertain due to a strong presence of male chauvinism.

Religion:
Guatemala’s official religion is Catholicism even if it is practised by less than 50% of the country’s population. The many different forms of Protestantism are closing the gap, reaching almost 40% of the population. The re-emergence of Mayan religions is a very recent phenomenon which is linked to the growing acceptance of the Mayan culture in all aspects of national life.

Class & Ethnicity:
Class and ethnic relations tend to favour the Ladinos social-economic conditions to the detriment of the Mayas. The power of the dominant class affects all facets of Guatemalan society. As a result, there is an underlying conflict that affects work relations and it is not uncommon to observe paternalistic or even racist attitudes towards the Mayas.

Canadian Perspective:


Gender:
A great deal of machismo among ladino men. Very conservative and respectful view among Mayans. One should expect a much greater degree of sexism in the workplace and in one’s daily routine in general.

Religion:
Guatemala is a Catholic country, and most people are Catholic. However, protestant evangelical churches have made serious inroads in the last ten years, usually linked to southern U.S. churches. Traditional Mayan religions are also practised, sometimes in conjunction with Catholicism, but this tends to be kept underground and one won’t likely come in contact with it.

As Guatemalans are generally quite religious they will not react kindly to criticisms of the church or organized religion. However, they neither expect nor frown upon religious practices by outsiders, in my experience.

Class:
There are three main classes in Guatemala: wealthy ladinos, poor ladinos, and extremely poor Mayans. There is very little middle class to speak of, especially outside of the main cities. One should be prepared for extreme poverty in many parts of Guatemala City, as well as in the countryside.

Ethnicity:
There are three main ethnic groups: ladino (of Spanish, or perhaps German descent, often with Mayan blood as well), Mayan, and Garifuna. Among the Mayans, there are at least 21 different linguistic groups, all with very distinct histories and traditions. The Garifuna are a small ethnic group of Caribbean descent who live on the east coast.

Political correctness is definitely not a common phenomenon. Persons of colour may experience some prejudice among ladinos; in particular.

Submit Your Comments

Cultural Information - Relationship-building

Question:

How important is it to establish a personal relationship with a colleague or client before getting to business?

Local Perspective:

Developing personal relations with colleagues or a potential client is very important due to the relatively rigid social hierarchy. Meeting people from a variety of walks of life will help you create a more general view of social dynamics. The meaning attached to speech as a gauge of trust is very important in Guatemalans’ relations with others.

Canadian Perspective:

Contacts are essential to business relationships. I do not see how one could successfully carry on business in Guatemala without close links to Guatemalans. It is essential to understand how local business relationships are developed and maintained. Getting the lay of the land in Guatemala takes a very long time: a tremendous amount is going on under the surface. Also, it is a relatively small country with a small economy, so the business and professional world is quite small.

I am not really sure how to go about establishing business relationships with local Guatemalans. I would suggest seeking assistance at the Canadian embassy in Guatemala. One might also seek guidance from other ex-pats in Guatemalan City or Antigua, in particular, especially Americans.

Finally, while maintaining a jovial comportment on the outside, the expat should exercise caution and ensure adequate back-up in insecure situations. Westerners, and especially Canadians, are frequently viewed as naive and easy to take advantage of. Canadians are also often equated with Americans.

Submit Your Comments

Cultural Information - Privileges and Favouritism

Question:

Would a colleague or employee expect special privileges or considerations given our personal relationship or friendship

Local Perspective:

In Guatemala, a colleague or employee does not necessarily expect to receive special favours; however, it is best to define his responsibilities by a job description related to his position. A large number of private companies in Guatemala have codes of ethics similar to those in Canada, but in reality they are often applied more for lower-ranking managers. It is not unheard of that a counterpart might ask a superior for a favour.

Canadian Perspective:

In most cases, yes, at least relative to Canada. Many business relations are based on personal connections. It can be delicate manoeuvring around these expectations.

For example, I once had to spend about $300.00 (Canadian) on the printing of a set of reports in Guatemala. A person I had known from a local research centre, upon learning of my intentions, tried to connect me with a friend of hers who ran a printing shop at the local university. However, I found that the prices available at a local copy shop were much lower than those offered by her friend. She was most unhappy when she learned that I had had the work done elsewhere, and that her friend would not be getting the business. However, I made my decision on the basis that I did not want to be taken advantage of.

Submit Your Comments

Cultural Information - Conflicts in the Workplace

Question:

I have a work-related problem with a colleague. Do I confront him or her directly? Privately or publicly?

Local Perspective:

Regarding the resolution of conflicts in the workplace, it may happen that you must confront the person in question directly, preferably in private. If this approach does not succeed, mediation through a third party is often used. With Mayan people, attention should be paid to the tone of voice and the way the problem is approached since a tone of voice that is too direct can easily offend. For a long time, Guatemalan society was very authoritarian, intolerant, and repressive of the Mayas. These characteristics can still be seen in social relations and occasionally make workplace relations tense. When a Guatemalan colleague suddenly behaves differently, it is possible that this is related to a problem in the workplace.

Canadian Perspective:

Definitely speak to the person in private first. Any public embarrassment or contest of wills will heighten tensions and could lead to a different reaction from the colleague that is entirely different that what would have come in private. A Guatemalan would not want to loose face or suffer any humiliation in front of his or her colleagues, although this is obviously not too different from Canada in this sense. In most cases, one can tell if a colleague is unhappy because, other than telling you directly, they will be less friendly and jovial in their greetings. On the whole, Ladino culture is normally much more open and expressive than Canadian culture.

Submit Your Comments

Cultural Information - Motivating Local Colleagues

Question:

What motivates my local colleagues to perform well on the job?

Local Perspective:

Motivation to perform well at work is linked first and foremost to good working conditions, remuneration and professional satisfaction. Guatemalans like to feel respected and interpersonal relations play an important role in the workplace.

Canadian Perspective:

Keeping his or her job would be the prime objective in a country with such widespread poverty and scarce employment. After that, of course it will depend on the type of work, but I think that money and status would usually be the next most important motivators. After this, decent working conditions and loyalty will be important.

Submit Your Comments

Cultural Information - Recommended Books, Films & Foods

Question:

To help me learn more about the local culture(s), please recommend: books, films, television shows, foods and web sites.

Local Perspective:

See below.(question 2)

Canadian Perspective:

Books (available in French or English) by authors of Guatemala: Francisco Goldman, The Long Night of White Chickens (1992). Gives an idea of recent history in Guatemala; shows especially the difficulty of a Westerner really knowing what is happening under the surface in the country. Fiction. Eduardo Galeanon, Open Veins of Latin America (1974). A Latin American classic by a Guatemalan author. Noble Peace Prize recipient. Non fiction. Ronald Wright, Time Among the Maya (1989). A Canadian author’s very readable and interesting guide to Guatemalan travel and history. Non fiction.

Useful internet links: http://lanic.utexas.edu/la/ca/guatemala/ —a good collection of links. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2045.htm —general background information. http://web.amnesty.org/web/content.nsf/pages/gbrguatemala_index —for familiarity with the human rights situation, which I would suggest is quite important to have a sense of what is going on.

I would recommend the film Men With Guns by Ken Loach if you are interested in the recent history and political situation.

There are also Guatemalan community or solidarity groups in many Canadian cities, made up of both Guatemalans and Canadians, and they often hold cultural events. This would be a good way get to know people and, especially, to get up to date information about the country.

Submit Your Comments

Cultural Information - In-country Activities

Question:

When in this country, I want to learn more about the culture(s) and people. What activities can you recommend?

Local Perspective:

Guatemala is a country with a lot of potential because of its rich culture and its diverse flora and fauna. You can find a huge bibliography about the economic, political, social, and cultural life of the country. If you want to visit tourist areas, you should inquire at the Guatemalan Institute of Tourism INGUAT. Guatemalan cuisine is very rich and varies a lot depending on the area and ethnic group. You can find many different international dishes, particularly in the capital city.

Among other things, you will find ruins which bear witness to the history of the great Mayan civilization, the city of Antigua Guatemala, the splendour of the colonial architecture, the beaches of the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean, volcanoes, colourful and intoxicating markets, etc. The large urban centres have great cultural events (museums, plays, internet cafes, hiking paths, volcano climbing, amusement parks and more). In the most important tourist areas, which include Tikal, Antigua Guatemala, Quezaltenango and Chichicastenango, you will easily find agencies that offer very interesting cultural and thematic outings focussing on such themes as the different forms of Mayan art.

Canadian Perspective:

Traditional dishes: Tortillas, beans, rice, chicken. Above all, licuados, which are milkshakes made with fresh fruit and milk or water. They are delicious and not to be missed, although watch for cleanliness in the preparation...

In terms of cultural or recreational activities in Guatemala, I recommend three in particular. First, the Mayan culture and the natural beauty are greatest, in my opinion, in the north-eastern highlands of the country, and one should definitely try to spend some time hiking or driving around this area. Second, the northern rainforest and Peten archaeological site are an outstanding tourist attraction. Third, the Spanish architecture of Antigua is very impressive given that Antigua was the colonial capital for the entire region for well over a century.

Submit Your Comments

Cultural Information - National Heroes

Question:

Who are this country's national heroes?

Local Perspective:

The Guatemalan nation’s heroes are fashioned after the Ladinos who shaped and dominated all the spheres of life in the country since Independence (September 15, 1821) until the present day. The heroes from the Independence are: Juan Barrundia, doña Dolores Bedoya de Molina, don Pedro Molina. During the 20th century, the Guatemalan authorities created the national Guatemalan hero Tecún Umán, a Mayan-Quiché warrior who died when the Spaniards came to the region. This individual is one of the most controversial in national history. First despised and considered as a traitor for centuries, he then became known as a great warrior who courageously died while defending the freedom of his homeland. This claim is not only anachronistic, but also contentious since Guatemala did not exist in 1523.

Canadian Perspective:

It depends on who you speak to. Among the general population, a great hero is Jacobo Arbenz, the elected president of the country during its only real period of democracy. The defining event of Guatemalan post-war history was the overthrow of Arbenz in 1954 in a military coup backed by the CIA (President Clinton apologized for the U.S. role in 1998).

Another hero is Juan Jose Gerardi, former Bishop of Guatemala, who was murdered in 1998—apparently by the military—shortly after the Catholic Church published a landmark human rights report (the REMHI report) on the 30-year conflict. The report attributed 92% of human rights violations during the conflict to the state/ military. You may see Guatemalans wearing shirts with Bishop Gerardi’s picture.

Some wealthy Guatemalans revere General Efrain Rios-Montt, who ran the country and the military during its worst period of human rights violations in the early 1980s. During his tenure, approximately 400 Mayan villages in the highlands were destroyed. This was accompanied by a full suite of atrocities. Rios Montt is currently a senator, and his party, the FRG, is in power. He is very much the Guatemalan Pinochet, except that Rios Montt still calls the shots politically.

Submit Your Comments

Cultural Information - Shared Historical Events with Canada

Question:

Are there shared historical events between this country and Canada that could affect work or social relations?

Local Perspective:

N/A

Canadian Perspective:

The most significant historical event of the 1990s has been the peace process and the peace accords. Canada was very supportive of this, providing a lot of development funding, along with many other Western countries. This is widely resented by wealthy and powerful ladinos as an unwelcome intrusion by foreign do-gooders. On the other hand, other ladinos and Mayans generally have a positive view of ex-pats, although there is a growing sense that people from outside the country do not stay for long, and therefore that it is difficult or pointless to establish lasting relationships.

Unfortunately, the peace process has bogged down under the current government, reflected in a return to much higher levels of human rights violations in recent years.

Submit Your Comments

Cultural Information - Stereotypes

Question:

What stereotypes do Canadians have about the local culture that might be harmful to effective relations?

Local Perspective:

It is very difficult for any Canadian who does not know anything about the Guatemalan culture to set aside the typical stereotypes about Latin American countries. Canadians often tend to instantly imagine that Guatemala is a tropical country. Guatemala is not necessarily a tropical country since there are at least seven different climates. It is also a very colourful country, but it should not be assumed that the beautiful material worn by the Mayas are signs that the country is flourishing. The Mayas have an amazing culture, but their economic, social, and political growth was partially destroyed and hindered by the arrival of the Spanish conquerors.

The Mayas are not a monolithic entity that without exception lives in the margins of society. Some, albeit a minority, have become successful and are active in many different areas of Guatemalan society.

Canadian Perspective:

First, Guatemalans are very clean and formal in their appearance, and courteous and polite in the conduct. One will gain respect by doing the same.

Second, wealthy ladinos will resent being associated with the grinding poverty in which the vast majority of Guatemalans live. Getting into an in-depth discussion of this is a good way to ruin relations, although it must be said that there is room to respectfully seek anyone’s perspective, and in some cases the opportunity to discuss would be welcome so long as any responses are not strongly critical.

Third, the common stereotype in Guatemala is that Mayans have a beautiful culture, but that they are otherwise poor and unsophisticated. My experience has been that Mayans have quite a sophisticated and dignified view of the world, even if they are understandably cautious about engaging in lengthy conversations at an early stage.

Submit Your Comments

Cultural Information - About the Cultural Interpreters

Local Interpreter:

Your cultural interpreter was born in Guatemala in 1964, and is the eldest of five children. He grew up in a rural area. When he was 14 he went to Mazatenango (on Guatemala's Pacific coast) where he studied until he was 18. He subsequently immigrated to Montreal where he studied History at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM); he also obtained his Masters degree in History from the Université de Montréal. He is currently living with a Québécoise in Montreal and has two children.

Canadian Interpreter:

Your cultural interpreter was born in Toronto, Canada, the oldest of three children. He was raised in Burlington, Ontario. He studied History and International Development during 1990-94 at the University of Guelph, and law during 1995-1999 at Osgoode Hall Law School. His studies sent him abroad for the first time in 1993 where he studied in Krakow, Poland. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter went to Guatemala on four occasions, where he lived for 13 months altogether. During this time he carried out graduate research and worked for the United Nations Development Programme. He is currently living in Ottawa, Canada for the last year. He works in Ottawa and has no children.

Submit Your Comments

Disclaimer

Country Insights - Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.

You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.

The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.