Life in Uruguay - the Unbearable Slowness of Being

Uruguay culture has key attributes that make it attractive to English speakers considering a move abroad. It is one of the safest, most stable, and least corrupt countries in South America. On top of that, Uruguay’s high culture has produced a proud legacy of art, literature, music, and theater production.

But for many of us who have taken the leap and moved our lives to Uruguay, the cultural deal maker or deal breaker often boils down to the same thing: In Uruguay relationships and spontaneity are more important than schedules.

So how can this aspect of Uruguay culture be a deal maker for some and a deal breaker for others? Let me give you an example:

Not long after I moved to Uruguay, I was waiting in the checkout line of my neighborhood grocery store. I was the third person in line when the woman being helped by the checker discovered that she did not have enough money. I do not know this woman’s story but, for whatever reason, not having enough money for her purchase was the straw that broke the camel’s back. She burst out in tears, sobbing right there at the checkout counter.

So what happened? Well, the checker came out from behind the counter and rubbed her hand up and down the crying woman’s arm, speaking to her in a comforting voice. Then, the store manager came over and, after providing additional words of comfort, got out a form that he filled out and the woman signed. It appeared he gave her store credit to close the gap between the money she had and the cost of her purchase. The incident obstructed the only operating checkout counter for seven minutes while the checkout line grew to over a dozen people.

This type of behavior at the checkout counter of my neighborhood market is typical of Uruguay culture. It is not an isolated instance. If an elderly person is checking out and seems a little lost or lonely, the checker will take a few minutes to chat with him or her. If someone doesn’t believe the cash register added up his or her bill correctly, the checker will patiently get out a pencil and go through the bill item by item until the customer is satisfied.

 This is just one example in one setting of a larger picture of Uruguay culture, in which kinship, friendship, and community ties bend behavior away from what is most efficient and expedient in favor of human relationships. And here is where foreigners living in Uruguay split their opinion:

a)     Is Uruguay an inefficient country where workers just do not understand that time is money?

b)     Or, is Uruguay a special place that is muy tranquilo. A place where people have not yet sacrificed their souls to the wheels of production?

 If you are at a place in life where you need to make as much money as possible as an employee or a small business owner, then Uruguay will probably be a big frustration.

 A huge number of Uruguayans leave for other parts of the world after college, for the sole purpose of making more money than they can make at home. After they have built a nest egg, many will come back to the country they love.

However, if you are financially secure, have a retirement income, or operate an international business you may find it truly heartwarming to be able to live in a culture where relationships and spontaneity are more important than schedules. In fact you may never want to leave.

 And for a third group, the richness of Uruguay culture is well worth learning to live on a lower income.

 I will conclude with a final anecdote that may serve to illustrate the cultural difference between a typical Uruguayan and a recovering Gringo.

 One day I was taking care of some business along with my Uruguayan associate Martín. We had finished at the bank and our next stop was an appointment at a professional office five or six blocks away. Martín suggested we walk.

“But wouldn’t it be faster if we took the car?” I asked.

 Martín’s reply was, “Yes, it would be faster to take the car, but it is a beautiful day for a walk, and we will all be dead soon enough.”

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Anonymous said...

Well said!

Anonymous said...

The other day I met a retired banker (uruguayan) who had lived and worked abroad and actually, he , himself, was a bit "bored" in retirement. Nevertheless he said to me that in the community where we live the saying is not the american "Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today.", but is "Don't put off until tomorrow what you can put off unitl day after tomorrow." A whole different take on "Carpe diem".