Ten Tips for Surviving a Colombian Office

  1. Master the art of the concentration face

    It doesn’t matter if you are facebook-ing your girlfriend, watching cute kittens on YouTube or reading The Economist, Colombians in offices are masters of the concentration face. In three years I have worked in dozens of Bogotá offices and never once have I seen a Colombian lose their furiously furrowed brow nor their narrowed eyes, even when I know for a fact they are only emailing their mum or favouriting pictures of themselves on Twitter.

  2. Worship your Tea Lady

    No matter who you work for – a diva, an empressario, even the President – the most important person in your office is the Tea Lady. Not only does the Tea Lady decide if you get the fresh coffee or the dregs, she is also in charge of dispensing whatever sweets and cookies happen to wind up in the kitchen. Being friends with your Tea Lady is the difference between enjoying an illicit biscuit to satisfy your sugar cravings at 11am or having to venture out into the rain to look for a street vendor. She also knows everything about everything. Trust me.

  3. IT Departments never change

    Nothing made me feel as stupid or in possession of such flawed Spanish as the day when my computer went into meltdown. It ended with a frustrated IT worker having to visit me in person, because we were enjoying such comical exchanges on the phone. His elaborate explanation left me flummoxed until a colleague finally intervened: “He’s basically saying when that happens, turn it off and on again.” Never heard that one before.

  4. Avoid eating at your desk

    Colombians are funny about eating in public situations anyway and the office is no different. Unlike England, where I have seen stressed-out reporters wolf breakfast, lunch and dinner at their desks (all packaged, nutrition-free junk, by the way, the remnants of which will disappear into the piles of paper on their desks, only to surface decades later when Health and Safety visit. Colombian desks, of course, are always immaculate) Anyway, most offices have kitchens and canteens so eat there, please, otherwise your colleagues will look at you funny and will secretly be itching to clean your keyboard.

  5. Try to enjoy the affection

    Sexual harassment. It’s so not a thing here. From my very first interview in Colombia (three years ago, when my boss stood on a chair to kiss me on the cheek) my colleagues have displayed levels of affection and muttered terms of endearment that would be illegal on the other side of the pond. Telling a colleague they look beautiful, kissing them on the top of their head as you walk past their desk – it’s all apparently acceptable. Even though I think women in Colombia often get a very raw deal, I am not sure flinching or getting radically feminist is going to change anything.

  6. Coats are mandatory

    This is for the good people of Bogotá. Forget our total lack of central heating, despite our often chilly and rainy conditions, did you realise most of our new buildings are designed to have natural air-conditioning? Yep, that’s right, they actually want those breezes to flow through our offices and keep us all in a perpetual shiver. No wonder most of us sit at our desks in our coats. Some days I even consider gloves.

  7. Phone calls and emails; be polite, polite, polite

    A friend recently advised me: “Vicks, remember. A business meeting has gone well if 80% of the meeting is chatting, earning trust and becoming friends. If they like you, the business itself will be quick. If they don’t, it’s not going to happen anyway.” That probably explains why you won’t find the cheery efficiency of the US nor the firm directness of the UK in your average Colombian office. Instead there are pleasantries, pleasantries and more pleasantries; pleases, thank yous and how was your weekend? Take a deep breath, forget business for a second, be nice and talk off topic. It’s vital.

  8. Special days are very much observed

    I will always love the (female) colleague of mine who left chocolates on my keyboard one morning with a card that said: “Victoria, you are a very special and talented woman. Keep doing what you are doing.” Yes, it was International Women’s Day and International Women’s Day, much like Teachers’ Day, Journalists’ Day, Shoe-Shine Boys’ Day, Mother’s Day, Friendship Day, Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day and Children’s Day is very much observed. Buy a calendar.

  9. Juan Valdez delivers

    No need to expand there, eh?

  10. Office parties will always be office parties

    Ha! Who doesn’t love an office party? Besides, even with all that politeness and the open displays of affection, the survival guide to the office party is pretty much the same the world over right? Wrong. At my last Colombian office party the live band, who up until that moment had been belting out vallenato, were ordered to play something English for me. They launched into Let It Be while three of my colleagues picked me up and threw me into the air. It’s a bit of luck I am fully Colombianised these days, otherwise I would have been mortified. It was 3pm in the afternoon.

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

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21 Comments

  1. Harry S.

    I have noticed these same rules apply throughout Bogota culture. I often tend to get straight to the point. I will have to brush up on my pleasantries and small talk. I have also noticed the face of which you speak of, they are true experts and can hold it for long periods of time lol. They would make great poker players. Thank you for confirming what I have noticed but have not been there long enogh to make a final judgement lol.

  2. lablogotana

    # 2 is very true! And should also include the security guards/receptionists who let you into the building. On the few (ahem) occasions I’ve forgotten my ID card, being on smiling terms with them has meant the difference between being allowed in to earn my money and not!

  3. Isabel Porto

    True. Except for the fact that we do celebrate “love and friendship day” (dia del amor y la amistad) -on September, but we do not observe Valentine’s Day. Most people have an idea of what it is about but don’t know the motive or the month it is celebrated.

  4. Mario Arias

    As a bogotano living on Manchester and working on Stockport I see with utterly disbelief and disgusting how people take lunch in their desks.

    You need to spend 8 hours at your desks, Why do you want to spend your lunch hour IN YOUR DESK???

    To be fair Colombian office traditions are funny for British too. The first time my boss saw my with my toothbrush in a hand going to the bathroom:

    – Hey Mario, Do you have a date?
    – No.
    – No? But, are you going to brush your teeth?
    – Yes, Colombianos always brush our teeth after lunch
    – REALLY, WOW!!!!

    1. Juan

      Some years ago I heard a dutch manager in Medellin equally impressed by his employees fondness for oral hygiene after lunch. Nothing wrong with that. Here in my office (in Tokyo) a japanese colleague also was like that however she liked to brush her teeth walking around the office 😦 I had to ask her to do that just in the bathroom, suggestion that luckily she accepted.

  5. John Cruz

    “kissing them on the top of their head as you walk past their desk”? Never seen that (and I’m Bogotano).
    Btw, loved your post. It was hiarious and true.
    J.

  6. thellamadiaries

    Just started working in a Colombian office- this is just what I needed to read. And the concentration face is so true. I can never tell if people are working or not. I’m going to practice my furrowed brow look in the mirror.

  7. Roxanne

    I’m shocked you didn’t include your favorite sneaky tip, my lovely. I’ll give you a hint: “Oh, this old thing I’m wearing? I just came from the office…” 🙂 Missing you dearly and always love reading your words!

  8. Tigre

    Tee-hee, or jajaja, or LOL! As always, your observations are straight on. And they also illustrate some of the things I absolutely love about Colombia. Concentration face comes naturally, especially when I am about to fall asleep at my computer. It is easy to be nice to the tea lady, especially if I can’t have lunch at my desk but don’t have time to get out. Why bother with the IT department, they won’t usually bother with you. Crumbs and keyboards are never a good mix. I love the affection – it is so natural an non-threatening and I am certain (hopeful) that Colombians know where the line is between affection and sexual harrassment. It is quite a different thing and recognizable by the aggressive approach and slimy remarks. The breeze helps keep me awake. Politeness is under-rated and proven to have wonderful results. Make every day a special day – more chocolate for everyone! The tea lady might resent the Juan Valdez delivery – be careful. Office parties are great fun, especially when they are not in the office. Disfruten.

  9. nbvoronina

    No. 11. Read Vicky´s blog whenever you feel like procrastinating on a Friday… while maintaining a concentrated face, of course.

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