What I love most here in Chile are the people, blossoming relationship and their idea of ‘The friends of my friends are my friends’ (los amigos de mis amigos son mis amigos’) but I realized just now that this also means that if you do not have one friend here, it will be hard to find any. I’ve been in Santiago for almost two months now and slowly, slowly I’m understanding how it works. In the beginning everything is easy, happy go lucky and just happens without you noticing anything but now I find it more difficult to meet the ‘right’ people.
These are just my very first impressions of meeting people and doing business here in Chile. It’s the perspective of a newbee who has not been working outside of Europe yet, who’s set foot for the first time on the Latin American continent and who has a lot, lot to learn!
Tough to get into circles, a very exclusive and closed group
Now, I’m more sensible to how chileans greet each other and how they move in different social settings. I have the feeling that their circles are actually pretty closed and that you are granted access only if you have a friend inside (a ‘pituto’, someone who vows for you). The friends of my friends are my friends – it works kind of like a screening. If you have a friend it means he has approved you, you are now wearing a stamp on your forehead stating you are ok, not a crazy person, no danger in hanging out with you and this way you get to meet more people. When meeting a new person, one of the first questions they ask are about the last name, the quarter of Santiago the other grew up in and the school he/she went to. High School not College is what tells most about your social status and your parent’s wealth.
But once you get into a circle of chileans, you’ll be passed around (and even more so if you are European. Chilean love all that comes from outside – I still haven’t found out why, but I notice it everyday that they are very excited to know you are a stranger in their country. They prefer Europeans over gringos, so a few extra points for me.) and helped a lot. Once you enter a circle, a network of contact opens up to you. A pituto is the most common form of finding a job here which nurtures the gap between the richest and poorest even more.
Facetime and personal contact matter a lot
Personal contact matter a lot and are based on your personal relationship, even in a business meeting it is the general understanding that two people are meeting and not two companies. This means an important part of the meeting is the small talk about your family, education and in case of us foreigners our knowledge about the beautiful country. On countless occasions I have been asked for personal meetings and I have found that I could not advance much through mail or phone calls. Everybody asked to see me, not because my matter was so critical to them, but I believe to make sure I was real and not playing with them. To make sure I am a trustwothy person and my proposal is to be taken seriously.
Tardiness and agenda changes at last minute
The curious thing about setting up a meeting though is that it can be changed and cancelled from one minute to the next. Even on last notice 10 min before the actual meeting time. In these two months, almost half of the meetings have been changed, cancelled or lead by a different person than initially planned. It’s curious to me because in the beginning it had seemed such an important issue meeting in person instead of over the phone.
And when the meeting does take place, do not be surprised to be made to wait. Either the person coming to your office makes you wait or you have to wait in their office for them to have time for you. I have been told that this is the chilean way of showing hierarchy, power and position (which are all very important here). The more important the person the longer you have to wait. If you want something from someone, you will have to wait. You will be made to wait even if the other person is not doing anything in particular – just as a way of showing who is on top.
Business cards, an initial act of meeting someone
Finally the conversation starts and after the initial handshake or kiss on the right cheek, it is time to exchange business cards. Business cards are very important and you should take some time to admire the respective other’s card. Memorise his / her title. Oftentimes, I have received from people I have merely exchanged three words with but in the end, it is a way of staying in contact or creating a new one.
A Yes can mean a No
Another curious thing is that Chileans never say ’No’ and for me it is hard to interpret a Yes that means yes and a yes that actually means No. I still haven’t got round to that. Maybe ‘saying Yes’ is a way of being polite and of keeping all the possibilities open but for me it leads to frustration. Frustration over infinite email threads, phone calls and meetings without any tangible outcome. I have heard that this is a rather common thing in Latin America and as everything, with time I will get used to it.
These are only my impression after almost two months of working in Chile, I am sure that with time I will understand better how relationships work and I will surely stumble upon other curious facts.