Enjoying the XXL weekend
Argentina is in the middle of a 4 day weekend, also know as the XXL (or even XXXL!) weekend. Tuesday December 8th is a public holiday (Immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary) and so is Monday December 7th, since every year the government declares a series of "Feriados con fines turisticos" (public holidays to promote tourism). These touristic holidays are usually on Monday or Friday to create long weekends. Another very practical custom here is to move some public holidays to a Monday, so for example if August 17th (the day of San Martin, the national liberator) falls on a Thursday, the holiday will be moved to the next Monday, again to create a get-away opportunity. In 2020, a pretty standard year in terms of holidays (and that is probably the only thing that was standard about it...), there were 19 public holidays of which 3 were "touristic" and 2 were moved to a Monday. Nineteen holidays is not a world record (apparently Cambodia holds that with 28 days) but it is quite nice compared to France or US who had 11/10 days respectively if I counted well.
More importantly, this XXL weekend is the first one during which tourism inside the country is actually allowed! The rules are not very clear yet, some provinces demand negative PCR tests upon entry, others only a self-completed form, some require an official hotel reservation or medical insurance that covers Covid-19, and there is talk of a "summer App" but there is definitely movement and excitement. It feels like Europe back in May/June. And regarding the complex rules, Argentines are used to those and will know how to take the challenge with calm and patience. Personally I am still learning but getting better, it's a pity that I will be leaving soon after all my efforts. There is even a chapter about calm and patience in my "10 theories" book that shows how I felt about it back in 2014. I do want to mention that most of my Argentine friends do not match this stereotype, but tend to understand why it exists!
Theory#7: When in Argentina… take things with calm and patience
In previous small theories, I made the point that Argentines were very friendly; I also stated they were loyal and everyday superheroes… Now, like all true heroes, Argentine people also have their Achilles’ heel.
I bet the first thing that comes to mind as their Achille’s heel is the stereotype of the proud and arrogant Argentine. Well, that’s not it. Arrogance is a trait that appears throughout my interviewees’ answers, but only in a folkloric manner: yes, Argentines know everything, talk about anything with enthusiasm, are sweet talkers, never make mistakes, doesn’t admit criticism (even of the constructive kind), and are never guilty… but that doesn’t disturb foreigners too much.
The area in which the culture shock with Argentines is perceived to be the most negative is the one that has to do with their failure to honor commitments. Examples are overly abundant in my study, ranging from lack of punctuality to broken promises. However, this inability to meet obligations is even more disturbing when it occurs in the work sphere. For many of the interviewees it reflects a generalized disorganization, which never ceases to surprise them. According to a Taiwanese interviewee: “You need to get used to it, or else your blood will constantly be boiling”.
During my (relatively) short time living in this country, I have already learned never to be on time for a party, because the host might still be in pajamas, and that it’s better to bring a book everywhere you go, just in case (thanks to all the waiting, I’ve become a very cultured person here in Buenos Aires!), or to have a backup plan. But I continue to have a harder time with business matters: even though I try to choose suppliers who deliver on schedule, I still get stressed out, I continue to fall into the trap of false expectations and still don’t completely understand how things truly work. It feels like watching a domino line: since many people in a row don’t deliver on what they promised, the only thing you can do is witness how the entire construction topples.
“They’re not punctual at all. It’s a nightmare having to wait for people to come to your house to repair things.” (woman from Hungary who has lived in Argentina for 3 months)
“[One of the things I will miss the least when I leave is] the lack of respect for people’s time.” (woman, United States, 2 years)
“[Something typically Argentine is] to say ‘tomorrow’ when it doesn’t mean ‘tomorrow’… (tomorrow, yes but, what year? what century?). Sometimes we call Argentina ‘Mañanía’” (man, Russia, 11 years)
“In business, in politics, in private life, you can never really look forward to something with enthusiasm: there’s always a complication, you can’t rely on anything. I am still surprised by this after 10 years.” (man, Holland, 15 years)
“People are less committed, unreliable. There is no maliciousness in that, they’re just too laid-back. People here are not as ambitious as people from other countries.” (woman, United Kingdom, 3 years)
“Sometimes they promise things and don’t do them, just by fear of saying ‘no’” (woman, Spain, 2 years)
“What bothers me the most is that, when they have to give a negative answer or are unable to do something, they don’t say anything. They won’t give a negative answer. They don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings but it hurts more when they don’t say anything. Then you find yourself left high and dry, alone on a Saturday night when all the other people already have plans.” (woman, Holland, 4 years)
“There are differences in the perception of truth and lying… What I perceive as a lie is a means of expression or of socializing for them...” (woman, United States, 2 years)
Jennifer Madison, a German who lived in Argentina for three years, writes about “The 10 things I will miss and not miss about living in Argentina” in her blog: “Argentineans prefer confirming they will show up after receiving an invitation and canceling later, than canceling right away even though they already know they won’t show up. This has angered me quite a lot of times and it is something I definitely cannot get used to. I really need people around me that I can rely on and unfortunately, I was disappointed a lot in Argentina. Because quite a lot of times I invited my friends over to have dinner with us and many times, they just canceled on the spot. And this is not pleasant if you prepared a nice barbecue and bought the food and got really excited and then they send a cancellation by text message.”
The failure to honor commitments gives an overall impression of lack of professionalism, which – in the opinion of the foreigners in this study – holds Argentines back in their local and international development. (In another of my small theories I praise the Argentine recipe for happiness, their balance between work and enjoyment… It’s just that sometimes the balance is too much tilted towards the latter…)
Part of my job is to develop research methods and one day, an Argentine colleague told me that the digital applications we used in our company were made in the US or England. He thought, and I believe him, that they could be made in Argentina at a lesser cost but it’s too risky, there is always the fear of people not delivering on time. By the way, I also find day-to-day communications unprofessional: emails have mistakes or include correspondence between other people that you don’t want to or were not intended to see, invitations are sent the day before the event… It’s as if the most important thing is to send something, anything, rather than the recipient.
“Argentines don't understand the concept of deadlines. They promise you things and I am chasing them for a week. I need to meet a deadline in London, and they end up thinking I am slack” (woman, United Kingdom, 3 years)
“Slow to answer, bad at communication.” (woman, United States, 4 months)
“They don’t do things on the spot, they don’t answer emails. In Italy you have to answer on the spot.” (man, Italy, 3 years)
“They are unambitious at work, not very competitive and inefficient… [When I leave] I won’t miss the absence of a well-functioning business system.” (man, Holland, 5 years)
“The Argentine is lazy and doesn’t deliver… Since I am a hard worker, this gives me more opportunities.” (man, Italy, 15 months)
“Mexicans are more willing to work than Argentines: if they have work they tend to it. The Argentine worker arrives at 9:30 and leaves quickly at 5pm. They lack the motivation of knowing that work is important.” (woman, Mexico, 4 years)
“They don’t have a very pronounced sense of responsibility. “(man, China, 2 years)
“Difficulties with the provision of services. The technician says he will come and then doesn’t. Waiting two months to set up the Internet: it’s worse than Brazil.” (man, Brazil, 2 years)
“The younger people are not responsible at all at work: they leave, don’t show up, come to work sometimes, they don’t care. I had to increase the average age of workers in my firm.” (man, Spain, 2 years)
“Sometimes at work they tell you pretty obvious things like ‘you’ll need to be there between 8 and 12’. To me that is normal, but it shows that there are people who don’t do it.” (woman, Italy, 3 years)
“Poor client service. Employees talk to each other while helping you, or instead of doing so.” (man, Brazil, 2 years)
“The client is never right, the one who’s right is the owner of the business.” (woman, Mexico, 4 years)
“They don’t work in a diligent manner: they leave loose cables, broken edges… And in the end it looks unfinished, basic details are missing.” (man, Russia, 11 years)
“They’re opportunistic, they don’t try to build long-lasting business relations. Immediate gains are more important to them than a 10-year plan.” (woman, Japan, 14 years)
After several experiences, I realized that Argentines actually do deliver on what they promised, but without keeping the client informed or communicating the process to them. It has happened to me that, after waiting for a long time without any form of news or update and starting to think that I am probably never going to get what I asked for, all of a sudden the supplier calls to tell me my order is ready and I have to pay right away.
Maria from Brazil recalls I used to go to a sports club to exercise and play tennis. At one point I had two classes to make up and on a bright, sunny day, under the intense blue sky that you can only find in Argentina, I ran into my coach. He was sitting on the terrace, enjoying the morning sun. Since he didn’t seem busy, I suggested that we could recover my classes at that moment. He told me he was unavailable. “But you don’t have any students right now” I said, somewhere between surprised and offended. “No, I can’t”, he replied, “because this is the time I set aside to drink mate”.
The perceived lack of organization definitely does not help to create a climate of trust. There probably is some kind of order (as Shakespeare said, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it”), but this order is difficult to understand for us foreigners.
“It’s always like a nice chaos: Argentines don’t do simple things, like make a list, for instance. They think things will fall into place by themselves.” (woman, Holland, 5 years)
“[My first impressions of Argentines was] generalized disorganization”. (woman, France, 2 years)
“They wait in lines for hours. If they were a bit more organized, they wouldn’t need that many lines.” (woman, China, 4 months)
“[What I will miss the least when I leave] is the disorder.” (man, Russia, 11 years)
M. from Holland recalls Argentines don’t know how to plan. That’s why they don’t succeed collectively in a lot of things. I used to sail regattas with six people. We would never win. Each time one of the members of the group had a problem, all the others abandoned their position to go help that person. It was very friendly, but not so efficient… So I started to put some order. We ended up winning… but they called me Hitler!
Wherever you go, you will always find things that make you feel uncomfortable. Cultural shock tends to be less violent however when one is aware of the other’s habits and expectations. In the US, for instance, it is considered good service to wait on customers quickly in restaurants: remove the plates as soon as they finish eating and bring the bill as early as possible. The result is that foreigners often feel pushed out. Yet, contrary to what one could think, the motive behind this is quite considerate: it is to ensure that the client doesn’t waste time. Quite the opposite of “taking things with calm and patience”, isn’t it?
PS: Speaking of calm and patience, below is a map of Argentinian provinces in the North/Centre/Patagonia with the requirements for tourists (courtesy of Radio Mitre).
PPS: In case you were curious: today is National Gaucho day!