The most important advice we can give is that if you don’t speak Spanish ask for help.
Over your first several months or even year in Ecuador adjusting to the nuances of the culture will very likely be a challenge.
It’s not so much the differences in food, customs and standard cultural differences that will constitute the largest change – although they are different. Those things you will figure out in short order. It’s the nuances in communication and the do’s and don'ts that will likely make or break your experience settling in here.
So here’s some information and advice to help you along the way.
There are at least two distinct cultures in Ecuador – coastal and mountain. On the coast (La Costa), the pace is faster, people are livelier, more direct, louder and less formal – more so of course in the cities than in smaller towns. In the mountains (La Sierra), the pace is slower, people are more formal and traditional manners and values more intact.
In the Sierra, especially in smaller cities and towns, you can expect to hear good morning/afternoon/evening prior to talking and perhaps even exchange several pleasantries (which can even go on for several minutes in a business meeting) prior to discussing the task at hand. People often say ‘buen provecho’ even to strangers when passing people who are eating (the equivalent of ‘bon appetite’).
The culture in the mountains does not encourage direct communication. This can be a challenge coming from a place like the US where saying what you mean and doing what you say is highly valued.
In Ecuador it is rare for someone to directly tell you no. We jokingly refer to this as ‘The Ecuadorian No’. Basically how this plays out is that the subtleties of communication take on greater importance – sometimes even more so than the words. So if you are setting an appointment or hiring someone to provide a service, the key to knowing whether or not they are committing to helping you is the level of enthusiasm in their response and the non-verbal communication. If someone half-heartedly agrees to something you are asking/proposing, you have likely encountered the Ecuadorian no. If someone is more enthusiastic and asking for details, setting times and seems genuinely engaged in the interaction, you can assume that is an actual yes.
Time in Ecuador
Time and breaking appointments/commitments in Ecuador is also quite different than European or US culture where timeliness and follow through are more highly valued.
In Ecuador, very few people will call you to cancel an appointment – they simply wont show up or be there to greet you at the appointed time.
Fortunately this dynamic has a fairly easy solution. Call to confirm. For example, if you set an appointment with someone verbally on a Friday for the following Monday, call Monday morning to confirm. At that point you will get the real scoop if the person can make it or not.
This leads into a couple of other important topics.
Maintaining Your Cool
Don’t get mad! Things are different here. The culture and the language are new to you. Things that may seem insulting to a foreigner may be routine and not viewed negatively here. Raising your voice or getting visibly upset in public is deeply frowned upon. It’s fine to be direct, it is fine to say what you mean, but accept the result, look for the verbal and non-verbal cues and roll with the punches. Giving someone ‘a piece of your mind’ does not work here. If someone does something you don’t like, find someone else to work with who is more to your liking and leave it there. There are even laws on the books in Ecuador pertaining to libel and slander that are quite strong. Partly as a result and partly due to the culture, people generally do not openly speak negatively about each other. Again, communication cues are important to understand the nuance of someone’s views. No one is going to tell you directly for example, ‘no that lawyer is terrible, don’t use him.’ Or ‘I don’t like that guy he did such and so to me.’ Again, the key to understanding what is being said is the tone of voice, body language and level of enthusiasm, not necessarily the words being spoken.
Getting to Yes
There is much more room in Ecuador when dealing with service providers, corporations and even government on policy versus implementation. If you don’t know the right questions to ask, don’t have the right personal contacts or simply don’t know how to find the space available to get to ‘yes’, you will find yourself being told ‘no’ to things that can actually be quite easy to do.
The key here is smiling, making friends, continuing the discussion, asking questions and being persistent when confronted with ‘no’. Asking things like, ‘well what if we do it this way’ and simply persistently and in a friendly way continuing the discussion goes a long way.
Overseeing Your Affairs
The level of professionalism and service in Ecuador, coupled with, in some cases, a lack of standard processes and oversight agencies often means your desired outcome will not be realized without a great deal of personal oversight. ‘Trusting the professionals’ is not a recommended strategy here. This is not to say there aren’t fantastic, competent professionals – in fact there is an abundance of them – that being said, taking a hands on approach to your affairs is highly recommended.
It was not that many years ago that traveling in Ecuador was difficult. It took many hours to travel between major cities and air travel was not as common as it is today. Lack of mobility and some ingrained cultural norms lead to Ecuador being a very familial society. Everyone knows everyone, several generations often live under the same roof, children typically live at home until marriage and family name/reputation are important. As a result of these social ties – who you know and the relationships you have are vital to both personal and processional success.