How to negotiate Bogotá etiquette

I have just returned from a month in England with a mountain of new cotton leggings, a rapidly diminishing supply of decent chocolate and a new found respect for the importance of etiquette.

During my month there I attended one wedding, one funeral, met two new babies, numerous new husbands and negotiated the delicate business of being a frequent house guest or, worse, a frequent house guest who would rather run the London Marathon in a nightgown than overcome her anxiety in a kitchen. I could burn stuff for England.

You already know I was a little nervous about how my Colombian mannerisms would sit on the mother ship, but that was fine apart from one accidental Spanish exclamation at Victoria Station and the odd “gracias” – especially when I was tired.

No, it was more the considerations about what is right, wrong or downright inappropriate in a formal situation. Do people still dress in black to funerals? Is it okay to pop in and say hello to the bride as she’s getting ready, if you’ve known her since you were three but haven’t seen her for two-and-a-half years? Can you take a bottle of wine to a new mum or, worse, can you compare a beautiful, super-smart toddler to a particularly well-trained labrador?

These challenges certainly put the emphasis on etiquette for me. It’s really rather important. So, while I can’t answer any of the above questions (I like black anyway; the bride seemed pleased to see me and my new mum friends know I don’t know the first thing about babies) I can be helpful in the event that you should ever find yourself moving to a mountain-top city, populated by around
seven million people and in possession of its own peculiar brand of modern-day etiquette.

1. Even feminists must gracefully accept gentleman-like behaviour.

Whether it’s opening doors, ushering a woman first or, weirdly, helping a strange woman step from the bus like she’s a 90-year-old granny – Colombians ‘do’ automatic gallantry. If you refuse a proffered hand, on the basis that you’re a keen hiker more than capable of leaping from a bus – you will cause offence.

2. Apologise profusely whenever you use a big note.

Colombians loathe large notes, so even if you buy a 35,000 peso toaster with a 50,000 peso note, you will be asked if you have anything smaller. This loathing knows no bounds. Yesterday I bought a 6,000 peso lunch (£2) with a 10,000 peso note (£3.50) and had to employ Gwyneth-esque acting skills to convince the woman I felt truly terrible about it. Anything less? Poor etiquette.

3. Never chastise anyone for their tardiness.

The chaotic nature of transport and traffic in this city gives you an automatic get out clause for being late for anything. Never mind that they should have left earlier, commenting on a person’s lateness or, worse, looking sulkily at your watch as they approach, is just plain rude.

4. Don’t take offence at personal comments.

My female Colombian friends have gently chastised me on everything from my hair and clothes to my choice in handbags (and boyfriends) but my favourite personal comment arrived just recently. I went to England looking somewhat peaky and, thanks to biscuits, roast dinners and hearty puddings, returned more cuddly. “Wow, your bum is bigger,” exclaimed a Colombian friend. I was momentarily horrified until I remembered that’s actually a compliment here. Phew.

5. Sometimes etiquette is made to be broken.

Colombians think it’s disgusting to sit on a recently vacated bus seat, because the warmth of the previous person’s behind may lead to the spread of germs (yep) so it’s obviously poor etiquette to sit down immediately because it freaks everyone out. However, having given up my seat to an old lady once too often – only to watch her cling on desperately as she hovers above my seat as if my body heat were catching – I think it’s time we set this one to rest.

So yeah, respect the etiquette about money, knight-like behaviour and having a humongous ass – but the next time someone vacates their bus seat for you, sit on it and swivel.

Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.


  1. uncovercolombia

    Nice one. We agree with all the points but specially with number 5. key thing: if you are a foreigner visitor in Colombia, normal rules don’t apply to you in the same way and you can claim ignorance with a candid smile and get an automatic ‘get out of jail’ card in almost any situation. Welcome back!

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      I agree normal rules don’t apply. My top tip for if you need to nip inside to a restaurant toilet in Cartagena, for example, is to put on the worst accent and smile in confusion – they’ll always let a foreigner use the bathroom but never a Colombian! I hope the reverse is true in London 🙂

  2. Julie McNamee

    Excellent post. Funnily enough the asking for anything smaller, money-wise, I come across in France a lot. I’ve always presumed it’s because they never have enough change in the shops but maybe it is, as you say, a dislike of small notes.

  3. amber

    The bus seat thing gets me all the time- HA. I’m from Minnesota and we are known for the cold! People will actually thank you for warming their seat up on the cold days. hehe

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      They definitely don’t do that in Mexico then? One day I will film it and post the video. In fact, maybe I should run a competition for BSFF readers in Colombia – first one to send me a video of someone hovering over a bus seat wins a genuine chocolate medal from the London 2012 Olympics 🙂

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      Yes, you end up just nodding. I remember going to see a Colombian friend in blue jeans, red converse and a green t-shirt once and she actually said: “Vicki! What are you wearing? You can’t put those colours together!” and I thought really, have you never just shoved on the clothes you happen to have at hand? Western women here do have a reputation for being “disorderly” but I hesitate to say that perhaps we are slightly more liberated, hence why we don’t (always) fuss about a jeans and t-shirt combo!

  4. Emma P

    Ha, they really do do that thing with the change in France. And often they just ask for random amounts, like if something is 4 euro 12 cents and you offer a fiver, they ask if you have 20 cents. Which is weird as you still need change from that – I assumed they were just testing my French!

  5. shelts

    I’m also a Lincolnshire girl who’s just moved to Bogota and my friend pointed me towards your blog. I don’t want to read everything, as I want to leave some things to discover for myself, but I’m very grateful you wrote this list and I will keep it in mind every time I leave the house! Thank you!

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