(By Galya Gerstman) Costa Ricans are very polite. Very, very polite. We from the USA think we’re polite. The English think they’re polite. (The French and the Israelis don’t have any illusions that they are polite. Or at least they shouldn’t). But Costa Ricans have brought politesse to new heights. They are so polite that they are downright rude. Let me explain.

Costa Ricans are so polite that they feel it’s rude to respond “I don’t know” when someone stops them for directions. I can’t understand why those three words sound so poor to their ears, but they will go to great lengths to avoid saying them. I have been told that they will even invent directions, or at least try to guide you in the direction they think you might be seeking, without actually knowing where they are taking you.

Now, to my unbalanced sense of propriety, this sounds like rather uncouth behavior—after all, they may be leading you a completely wrong way! Because of them you might get lost, and only because they couldn’t spit out “I don’t know.” And it’s not just directions.

Many is the time I would ask a Costa Rican something and get the response “No sabria decirle”—I wouldn’t know how to tell you.

It took me years to understand that that was their courteous way of saying I don’t know. I thought they were saying, I wouldn’t know how to explain it to you, that they weren’t sure how to help me understand, so I would wait for them to at least try. But it was always followed with an awkward silence and that apologetic smile of theirs.

Another example of their well-intentioned but frustrating sense of politeness is during traffic jams. All of us law-abiding citizens wait more or less patiently in a long line of cars, whereas others decide they are too smart for that and use parallel service roads or even shoulder lanes to cut in line. And what happens when they reach the front of the line? Someone lets them in! Always! Because Costa Ricans can’t say no!

All you have to do is roll down your window and wave your hand out—a little eye contact is beneficial but not necessary. They will let you in because they wouldn’t want to appear rude by refusing. It doesn’t occur to them that the person who has cut in line is rude. And it doesn’t at all enter their minds that they are being rude to the rest of us saps waiting on line behind them, as they let every Tomas, Ricardo and Enrique in.

In fact, once I was in a terrible traffic jam at a toll booth. We were all stopped in a sea of cars due to the bottlenecking, but out of a side road cars were trying to get in. I let the first person in, because it wasn’t their fault that they lived in Trejos. I let the second one in because that’s how nice I am. But when the third car pulled up alongside me, I had to say no. (As a Tel Aviv taxi driver once said to my Costa Rican husband when he tried to use the arm-out-of-the-window method to be let in front of him, “What am I? A prostitute who will let anyone in??”)

Well, the woman to whom I said no gasped in shock. It must have been a first for her. Undaunted, she sped around me and gained entrance three cars ahead of me. When it was my turn to reach the toll booth, I had a surprise waiting. The toll collector said to me, “That woman a few cars ahead of you told me not to let you through because you’re a bitter old lady.” Now it was my turn to gasp. I didn’t know which was worse: that that witch had taken the time out to insult me to a complete stranger, all because I wouldn’t let every single person living in Escazu pass in front of my car; or because this dimwit of a toll collector felt it was her due responsibility to pass on the comment of a complete stranger to another complete stranger (although I will cut her some slack because she must have been bored as hell in that booth and our little tussle must have made her week); or because I was so unprepared for such venom that I started sputtering out my excuses to the toll collector before I got a hold of myself and my dignity and finally just shut up. My point is that I am the “bitter old lady” merely because I had the gall to say no to her face and not pretend I didn’t see her, which is apparently more socially acceptable.

Why is it always me who is considered the rude one? I think it’s because I say what I mean.

Though I am by no means an in your face-type person, and avoid confrontation at all costs, I nonetheless try to be clear and firm in my meaning. Which is obviously where I go wrong.

Once I called a company regarding some tiles I had ordered, and once again, the secretary told me that they would be arriving “tomorrow.” In my most polite voice, and in a quiet tone, I said, “Señorita, that’s what you’ve been telling me every day.” Whereupon she gasped, and hung up on me! What’d I say?! How dare I complain?

One time I was waiting on a long line in a bank with only one teller available. I saw a woman sitting at a desk and asked her why there was only one teller working. She answered that the other one was on her lunch break. “The other one?” I carped. “There’s only two tellers in this bank? Well, where’s the manager? He’s out on an errand. Doesn’t he have someone else to run his errands?” I asked. “It’s a personal errand. He’s on a personal errand during office hours?!” I was scandalized. I expected the other people on line to be scandalized, too, and they were. But at me. I turned to see them all glaring at me, or making eyes at each other, denoting “Look at that uppity Gringa. She thinks the world has to stop so that she won’t have to wait on line.”

Like I said, I can’t win. It is bad form to make waves, to complain, to say no. Why? I don’t know. I mean, I would like to try to find a way to help you to understand without possibly aggrieving you. Smile.


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