How to “Get” the Peruvians And Get What You Want From Them

Or the Cultural Intelligence Guide to Peruvians, or cross-cultural communication (to use the 1990s term for it). All this may be different now that COVID has erased some norms of meeting people in the same physical space. But, post-pandemic, I’m sure that these norms will return. (Note: First, the whiter, more male, and better looking that you are… the easier everything will be for you.) Now, on to the game!

If you really want to maneuver Peruvian society, and Peruvians themselves, the thing to know is… RESPECT. Not like how Aretha sang it, which was respect my human rights and me as a person. But, more like respect the societal rules, or the rules of deference. Peruvians know their place in their society and which class they belong to. They expect you to be respectful enough to treat them accordingly, and to behave in a way that reflects that you know the rules of Peruvian society. Capische?

Class structure. Understand how the Peruvians understand each other’s position in society. The class structure in Peru is by letter: A, B, C… (most people will say that they are B class as in B- but in reality they may be C++ class). As a foreigner, this will not really affect you but it’s useful to know how they deal with each other. When Peruvians who do not know each other meet, they ask three questions to help them figure where they belong in society.

1. They will ask you your full name to see if you have any connections. Peruvians have two last names from their father and mother, and if those names are distinctive, then they know WHO you are (imagine if you will that your name was Isabel Carmen Aliaga Varela — the Aliaga part could mean that you belong to the one of the original founding families of Peru. The Varela part could mean that you belong to one of the old money families of Lima).

2. Where did you go to high school. Most Peruvians do not go to university including the upper classes (even as recently as 20 years ago, upper class women were not encouraged to go to university — as they would not need a degree for a good marriage). If you went to one of the private schools like San Silvestre, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (the nouveau riche school), Italian School, Newton, and so on, then they can easily place you in society. Maybe they went to the same school. Then they have an instant connection with you. If you went to university abroad, in the U.S., England, or Spain, then you could be moving up in society. (Note on moving up in society: Education and overseas living experience are ways to move up in Peruvian society. Some families will send their children to public school 90 minutes away so that they have a better chance of moving up through the system. For example, a typical family of hairdressers and welders living in San Juan de Miraflores, a “conos” (projects or in some places shanty towns — squatting is a viable way to become a homeowner in these areas) housing neighborhood, will send their child to school in Miraflores, which is actually “San Miguel de Miraflores” but no one ever says that. By sending their child to public school in Miraflores, they are giving them an up and in into moving from C class to B class. Then the child studies abroad for university. When that person returns to Peru, they are now B class. To move from B to A class is a lot harder. A class tends to be families of old money and power. Even fame does not really help you move into A class).

3. Where did/do you live in Lima. As mentioned in the point above about school, your geography will determine your place in society. Peruvians who meet outside of Peru will ask where they lived in Lima. If the answer is San Isidro, Miraflores (not San Juan de Miraflores. Some will say this even if they actually grew up in the infamous one), La Estancia, then the other person knows that they are at least B class. Hence, everyone says Miraflores. If the person says San Borja or Barranco, it could be harder to tell. Even if the person lives in Lince, they may say San Isidro because it sounds better (people will even get dropped off in San Isidro and then walk the two blocks to Lince to make it look like they live in San Isidro… yes, it’s that important in Lima society).

Race. The color of your skin and your bone structure will also tell the other Peruvians where you are in society. Like in many other parts of the world, the women straighten their hair in Peru so that they will have less curly hair, but it can’t be too straight because then it’s too indigenous. But, they rely less on this than the aforementioned three questions. White, blue-eyed, and naturally blonde is upper class or foreign.

Another thing to understand about Peruvian society is…

Sycophancy – “pegajosa” or “sticky” is the closest word that I was given when I asked about brown nosing. But, since it’s not a bad thing -– it is simply the MO, modus operandi — way of conducting business -– it doesn’t have the same connotations that it has in English when accusing someone of being a a brown-noser. Peruvians don’t really talk about brown-nosing. It’s so normal for them that they don’t need to talk about it. There’s really no word for brown-nosing in Peruvian Spanish (sort of like how there is no word for privacy in Italian). It’s just how things are done. If you need something, it’s all — all — about who you know. It’s relational.

Peru is an extroverted culture with a preoccupation with “respect,” propriety, and formality — with obvious external audible and visible forms expected. The Peruvians are talkative people. They will ask you about your family, whether you are married, your age, and so on. Nothing is told in confidence. They feel free to share this information and to talk about you. Similar to brown-nosing, they may not really see this as a bad thing. They might just think they are being respectful to you by showing an interest in you. (Not that everything is benevolent. Peruvians seem to enjoy seeing slapstick or the failure of others.) Even if you don’t tell anyone anything about yourself, they might gossip about you anyway, even to you! Understanding that Peruvians gossip makes it easier for you to realize that this is part of the game of life in Peru.

Now, how to get what you want… here’s the secret! Make them feel that you are respecting them! Well, of course, you do, dahlin’. Make them feel like they are doing you a favor, even if they should just do their job. Always, always, make them feel like they have the upper hand. Then, make sure to thank them effusively, as in “muchisimas gracias” or “you saved my life” or some such hyperbole. These little thank yous will help you maintain the relationship for the next time you need something. It really is that simple. Be sort of sickly sweet. For men, just lower your voice a bit. Actually, men being men in a chauvinistic society, don’t need to kiss-up quite so much… depends on the class of the two actors.

Yes, really. This is the secret.

Now that you are in the know, here are some easy things you can do to make your way in Peruvian society easier. And to get what you want from Peruvians.

Speak Spanish. It’s respectful. Actually, the Peruvians speak “Castellano” or Castilian. It was the language of 12th century kingdom of Castile and Leon in Spain. The people of modern day central Spain speak this language to this day. Many South American countries call this form of Spanish Castilian. Of course, in Peru, there are colloquialisms. If you want to fit in, always use the term, “palta” for avocado. When giving directions, “siga defrente” or “sigue defrente” for “go straight” — I usually add a frantic chopping motion with my arm. If you mention “derecho” at all — at all,  the driver will start turning right. So keep “derecha” for your discussions of human rights. To sound friendly and intimate, say “porfa” for “por favor.” Also, Peruvians almost never use the word, “hola” when greeting people. But, they might say, “ciao” when departing. But it’s spelled, “chaw” if you are going to write it, but it’s better to use an emoji in Whatsapp.

Good day greetings — kissing on the cheek. Peruvians do one air kiss on each side, usually start on the right. If it’s a formal situation and the greeting involves a male, you can shake hands. But the cheek air kisses are okay too, while grabbing each other’s shoulders in a manly way. Most importantly, greet everyone! Seriously. Everyone. In stores, elevator, entering a conference, checking in, everyone. Every day at work, go around and greet all your colleagues, even if you saw them that long lost yesterday. At parties or events, you must personally greet everyone and say goodbye to everyone, individually. Peruvians are a people who want you to acknowledge them, each and every one, and that includes when entering a room. Even with your family. The way to deal with this is to show up on time for parties. So if the party is at 8:30 p.m., show up at 9 p.m. Then everyone who comes in after you, will have to come say hello to you. If you show up late, you have have to walk around and greet everyone. Then, stay till almost last. This way you won’t have to go around and say goodbye to everyone. Saying goodbye is an equal drama and it can take a long time. If you want to make a quick getaway, hug and kiss the hosts before giving the room a general wave and “Sorry, we have an early morning. We don’t want to cause a stir.” Then exit quickly. There will still be gossip, but at least you got away. The word for gossip is “chisme.” Women will sometimes start with “chisme, chisme, chisme…” when they want to tell you gossip.

Critically, start every interaction with a greeting. In shops, in email, on Whatsapp, on the phone — always start with a greeting. Always. On a somewhat related note, don’t barge straight into whatever you need or want. Even in a Whatsapp chat. Well, maybe if you are on fire, but I still think a Peruvian would start the call with, “Good evening, hope you are well. Could you be so kind as to help me? I’m on fire.” So, as I said, always start with a greeting. If not, you will look like a disrespectful boor.

Calling and Whatsapp. Lots of it. Use it. Use Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Whatsapp to communicate. Do it a lot. Peruvians like to feel the attention of those communiques pinging and vibrating on their phones. Preferably call. Peruvians want to feel the human interaction in every interaction. Nothing can be done quickly in Peru. There is no running in to buy a banana or a coffee. NO, no, no, NO. Peruvians would feel that they were denying you a respectful interaction if they did it too fast. They are not Scandinavians, who are famous for being efficient, if cold. For example, getting Internet set up in one’s home takes many phone calls and hours, sometimes days…

Dress and grooming. This is easy. Dress like Hans Solo. In winter. Google it. Or whatever the fashion dictates. A few years ago, every woman was showing up in white rabbit vests with gold accessories. In the summer, you can wear flip flops but really only when at the beach. Shorts are okay for men during the summer but best left for the beach town. Women are dressy. (A note: when you invite a Peruvian to an event, be it a food fair or theater outing, they will want to know the dress code. Peruvians are formal in terms of dress. Only in the last ten years have Peruvians allowed themselves to be seen outside a gym wearing sneakers. Yup.) Invitations will always state the dress code and for everything else, dress up rather than down. Wear jewelry. Critically, have your hair groomed and coiffed. Salons are open early (7 a.m. is very early to the nocturnal Peruvians) so that women can get their hair “blown” for the day. Women do not wash their hair every day (don’t be grossed out — they are clean) and they often go to the salon a few times a week to get it “done” for the next few days. Most women wear their hair long if they are younger and even if they are older. But, at some point, women of a certain age (no, older than that) will go for the short winged look in a shade of sandy chestnut color. I once sat at a salon and watch in amazement as the in house “blow-out queen” blew out woman after woman who came in looking like drowned rats… and then left looked like coiffed empresses ready to be driven in their Bentleys. Most importantly, women are coiffed when they go out. They will even carry a brush in their purses so that they can do a quick brush out if needed. Men generally have short hair but it’s okay to have a ponytail. I see few comb-overs in Lima. When bald, men in Lima seem to accept the baldness. Men can wear earrings as well (Back in the 1980s, men wearing earrings was a controversy — look how far we’ve come) but so far, most do not wear makeup (it’s a thing, it is — call it “tinted moisturizer” or “bronzer.” But, I digress.) Also, oddly, I’ve noticed some men who manage to make the white sock with birkenstock look okay. Wait, what am I saying?! Only Germans can pull off this look, and even then, not really. Peruvian men wear leather dress shoes or sneakers (as do lots of women). Again, word about sneakers. Until 2010 or so, no one wore sneakers outside of a gym. Now, everyone wears them.

Time. Most Peruvians will be late for parties or gatherings, even meetings. I find this a conundrum because being late is disrespectful. It wastes everyone’s time. The way to get around this is to be late yourself… no. One way to get around this is to host things at your own place. Or share a taxi to wherever you are going. And, have your phone loaded with other things to do… like Whatsapping all those folks you are brown-nosing, um, I mean, “chatting” with. If you are wondering how late to be for a restaurant meal, around 15-45 minutes is quite normal. For a private party, 30 minutes to an hour is normal. For business meetings, 10-15 minutes late is not late. Being late is all about “making an entrance” and the bigger a blowhard you think you are (but, I don’t think you’re reading my blog…), the more of an entrance you want to make. Drama!

Back to the idea of “formality” — yes the Peruvians are a formal people as I explained earlier. But when they mention “informal” — they are not talking about “casual” as in shorts and khaki. When Peruvians use the term, “informal,” they are talking about blackmarket or “under the table” prices or economy. But, if you ask a Peruvian, they will never use those words. It’s always the “informal” market. Peru leads in counterfeit (60 percent of things/ideas are “fake” or counterfeit in Peru). The informal attitude to copyright is part of the dichotomy that is only equaled by their sense of time. Unless one thinks of it as a form of flattery. About 70 percent of Peruvians work in the “informal” economy — from domestic staff to illegal commerce.

Finally, now that you know how to “get” the Peruvians and how to get what you want from them, remember this — don’t talk about this to them. Just as they don’t talk about the class system (yes, they have one), Peruvians, for all their talkativeness, don’t talk about their modus operandi. It’s not proper. Not polite. Shows a lack of respect.

Anyway, have I got a bit of juicy gossip for you… chisme, chisme, chisme…

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