Costa Rica

Costa Rican Worldview

Group Orientation
Family is the first and most important consideration in Costa Rica and may sometimes take priority over business commitments. Most people are motivated by group loyalty.

Emphasis on working together and maintaining harmony and “face.” At the same time individual initiative is valued as long as harmony is preserved.

Relationship Orientation 
Relationships are key to successful business and social interaction. Rushing into business discussion too soon can harm future working relationships

Structured hierarchy is accepted within families and the workplace; leaders may be paternalistic. However Costa Rica is much less hierarchical than many other Latin American countries, and there is an emphasis on participative consenus.

Need for Certainty 
Taking risks, even to seize business opportunities, is often viewed negatively. Losing face through personal failure is a strong deterrent. Data, facts, figures and much persuasion may be needed to alter plans.

Not all of the rules apply to everyone all of the time. Application of rules may depend on relationship.

Fluid Time 
Business meetings and social functions often begin and end late. Relationship obligations cause frequent re-prioritization. Punctuality is seen more in modern business than in social situations. Outsiders are expected to be punctual.

Cultural Notes:

  • Costa Ricans refer to themselves as “Ticos”
  • 95% of Costa Rica’s 3 million people are of European descent
  • Costa Rica has the highest number of lawyers per capita in Central America
  • In 2007 Costa Rica announced plans to be carbon neutral by 2021

Cultural Assumptions

  • Family is the most important social unit. Who you know is very important, and networks are tight.
  • Democracy is highly valued and everyone has a right to have a say. Equality and opportunity are emphasized.
  • Honesty, humility and formality are respected.
  • About 76% of citizens are Roman Catholic and adhere to its rules and traditions.
  • Industry and growth are critical but not at the expense of preserving the environment.
  • Personal appearance is a reflection of a person’s respect for themselves and for others
  • Juan Santamaria is a national hero. He died in 1856 defending Costa Rican sovereignty that was being challenged by Walker’s invasion.

Traditional Costa Rican Communication Style

While people may seem direct because of their willingness to discuss personal topics and even to discuss politics to a certain extent, conflict and openly holding individuals accountable is generally avoided. People may tell you what you want to hear in order to maintain harmony, while their body language and delivery may contain the real message. Often many words are used to convey a message in order to ensure it is delivered courteously.

High Context / Low Context 
Context is an important factor in determining the nature of conversations. More formality will be used when addressing those outside of the famiy and networks. However, unlike many other Spanish speakers, Costa Ricans use the the formal word “usted” for “you” even with close friends. This is not meant to show formality, but is simply a linguistic characteristic.

Friendliness and warmth are expected, but extreme expression of emotion, especially anger, is seen as immature and unprofessional. Expressions of warmth and closeness are more emotive between close friends.

Business interactions are traditionally formal, and the use of professional titles or Señor/ Señora reflect that formality. The titles Don and Doña are used to show respect for older people or someone special who is close to them. Costa Ricans take care to make sure clothing, shoes and jewelry are well-coordinated and demonstrate good taste.

Guidelines for Communicating with Costa Ricans

  • Business relationships are based on trust and familiarity. Be prepared to spend time developing relationships by discussing topics not related to work before launching into business.
  • Demonstrate a genuine interest in the country and its history, and in people’s lives outside of the workplace.
  • Ask questions that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer as people may give the answer they believe you would like in order to be friendly and maintain harmony.
  • Carry a lot of business cards because they are exchanged frequently. Place them in a card case, not your pocket, to show respect, and, if possible, have them printed in English and Spanish if coming from a non-Spanish speaking country
  • Conversation should always remain friendly and enable both parties to maintain face. Direct confrontation should be avoided, especially in groups.
  • Use titles and other formalities until invited to address someone by first name. Note that even though Costa Ricans use the formal form of “you” (usted), it does not demonstrate formality as it is used even with close family and friends.
  • Direct eye contact is important especially in serious conversations.
  • Handshaking, especially between men, is used frequently, when arriving and when leaving each time you meet.
  • Fidgeting with hands and feet or putting your feet on furniture is considered distracting and impolite.
  • When making an appointment, confirm it one week before, two days before and the day of.

Non-Verbal Dynamics

Eye contact and formal posture (no hands in pockets) are important because they send a message about respect for oneself and others. Gestures are common in everyday conversation. To ask someone to come to you, palm faces down and all four fingers motion toward the palm. The rudest gesture is the thumb between the index and middle finger, and should be avoided

When entering a meeting, party or other group of people it is important to shake hands with each person. Close friends and colleagues shake hands followed by a kiss or air kiss to the right cheek. If women are not acquainted, they may shake hands in business or may pat each other on the arm. Hugs are generally reserved for close family and friends. People who are well-aquainted may touch on the arm while in conversation.

Space between individuals is relatively close. It is considered rude to pull back from someone, because it may be perceived that you find it offensive to be near them. Most living spaces are small and may include extended family. Costa Ricans are also generally comfortable with being close in public.

Business Practices

PROBLEM SOLVING Difficult to identify problems directly as no one wants to raise problematic issues directly. Problems are addressed as group issues. Building consensus is important.
MOTIVATING PEOPLE Pleasant, friendly work environment and feeling like a valued part of the team. Also, financial rewards, increased status and loyalty from employer. Feeling that one’s voice is being heard.
APPRAISING PERFORMANCE Based on job performance, but also takes into account ability to fit into the team.
PERFORMANCE EXPECTATIONS Respectful of company and other employees. Follow-through on given tasks and harmoniously working with the team. Quality and maintaining good relationships may be put ahead of meeting deadlines.
NEGOTIATING, PERSUADING Relationships are important and knowing the right people and taking time to establish connections may help get things done. Negotiation can take time, and a direct approach may not be the most effective. Impatience can be viewed as weakness and lacking an investment in the long-term business relationship.
DECISION MAKING PROCESS Consensus of the group is important in decision-making. A leader may announce the final decision after all opinions are heard.
PARTICIPATION IN MEETINGS Small talk is important before getting down to business. People may not be as prepared for meetings as expected due to other priorities. Meetings may start late, but guests are expected to be on time. Decisions may not be reached if all involved are not present.
Hierarchy is respected and acknowledged, but everyone is welcome and expected to have input. Leaders may be a bit paternalistic and show deep interest in their employee’s lives.
HIRING Hiring is based on qualifications, but with a heavy emphasis on connections, who the applicant knows and the relationship to others inside or outside of the organization. Dismissal must take into account the impact on the company’s reputation and group morale.
CUSTOMER RELATIONS Development of long-term relationships. Relationships may be more important than price of the product. Expect to socialize as part of business.