10 Differences in Latin Culture Compared to U.S. Culture
How does Latin culture compare to U.S. culture?
We live in a rich and diverse world with a cornucopia of cultures. Although Latin America and the U.S. share the same hemisphere, many cultural differences exist between the two. If you haven’t spent time immersed in Latin culture, some of these differences may surprise you.
Ultimately, the key to meaningful and appropriate interactions with Spanish speakers relies heavily on understanding these distinctions. Let’s explore the 10 most prevalent cultural differences between these two groups.
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1. Official Language
The first difference between the two cultures is language. While English is the official language of the U.S., Spanish is the primary language in Latin America.
In the United States, English is the dominant language with over 230 million speakers. Spanish comes in second with more than 37 million speakers.
Interestingly, people of Latin heritage are not the only ones who speak Spanish in the U.S. Studies show that more Americans who are not of Spanish or Latin American descent are learning the language. According to a 2016 study by Pew Research, 37.6 million people in the U.S. speak Spanish at home, and 2.8 million of them are non-Hispanic.
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2. Personal Space and Affection
Latin Americans are an affectionate people who love hugs and accompany a kiss on the cheek with every saludo (hello and goodbye). Latinos and Latinas will get up close and personal, even when meeting for the first time. If they are close friends or family, the bear hug and cheek kiss come as a package deal.
On the other hand, folks in the U.S. greet each other with a firm handshake, and many don’t like other people being within an arm’s length of their bodies. Whereas in Latin culture, people tend to be more open to having someone physically close to them.
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3. Time and Pace
Monochronic societies like the U.S. have a standardized and linear view of time. For polychronic (Latin) cultures, time is less tangible and more flexible. In other words, Latinos and Latinas have a looser definition of time than gringos.
Being on time is essential in the United States. Americans pride themselves on being punctual and efficient with their time. The cultural belief is that being on time is a sign of respect for other people’s time. Most Americans will apologize if they arrive for an appointment even five minutes late.
In contrast, most events in Latin America do not start on time. If the party invitation says 5 p.m., no one will show up until 7 p.m. In fact, many Latinos and Latinas think it’s rude to be right on time to a social function because the hosts are likely still getting ready.
In Latin America, when someone says “I’ll be there in cinco minutos,” this can mean an hour or two of actual clock time. What’s more, it’s common to hear people say “ahorita voy,” (“I’m going right now”) when in reality they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.
It’s interesting to note that while lateness is admissible for social gatherings; it is not acceptable to be late to work. Even so, Latin Americans will take their time when doing business, influenced by the idea that it’s best not to rush meetings. In Latin culture, strictly adhering to a set agenda can negatively affect relationships and undermine trust.
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4. Food and Drink
Life moves at a slower pace in Latin culture. Things like dining at a restaurant take longer because the service is slower and amigos will linger for a chat before departing. In fact, waiters don’t even bring the check until you ask for it.
Sitting around a table with the family, having elaborate meals, and chatting is integral to Latin culture. It provides a time to communicate and connect with loved ones. In most Latin American countries, breakfast is a light meal while lunch is the main meal of the day. A late afternoon snack of coffee or tea and pan dulce (sweet bread) is a daily ritual in Latin culture. At night, dinner is usually small. This differs significantly from the U.S. culture, where dinner is typically the largest meal of the day.
Naturally, folks in the U.S. have enjoyed Latin-inspired food for decades. Tacos, tamales, and burritos are infused into American culture. The reverse is also true: thanks to globalization and Americanization, many U.S. chains have opened franchises in Latin America, paving the way for American staples to enter the Latin diet. Nowadays, Latinos and Latinas can eat hamburgers and drink Coca-Cola freely. Interestingly, in Guatemala (where I live), McDonald’s is actually considered a somewhat upscale place to eat.
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5. Family Love and Togetherness
For Latinos and Latinas, family plays a central role. For this reason, they spend much of their time cultivating and strengthening family ties. In most cases, families either live together or get together frequently. Personally, I have fond memories of family reunions as a kid with my Mexican grandfather, his siblings, and their multitude of descendants.
More often than not, adult children in Latin culture continue to live with their parents for life. If they move, it’s likely they end up living on the same street or in the same neighborhood.
In contrast, most kids in the U.S. grow up and leave home at age 18.
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6. Community and Societal Norms
Latinos and Latinas are warm, friendly, and inviting. Even the “poorest” of Guatemalans (economically speaking) will invite you to a delicious dinner of corn tortillas, black beans, and scrambled eggs.
In stark contrast, most Americans guard their privacy and enjoy time alone. In the U.S., it’s not the norm to visit a person without first notifying them. Popping-in can even be considered disrespectful.
The average Latino and Latina feels that it’s essential to maintain social harmony. Most of the time, a person will prefer to ignore a challenging issue in order to avoid social awkwardness and conflict.
For Americans, it is easier to express dissatisfaction or disagreement in a direct way without damaging a personal relationship. In fact, two people can be in complete disagreement about something without it negatively affecting their relationship. In other words, the U.S. cultural norm is to “agree to disagree,” and the Latin cultural norm is to just say “yes,” even if you mean “no.”
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7. Music and Dance
Many Latin Americans are great dancers and love to play loud music at every opportunity. Some distinctively Latin-flavored music genres include cumbia, salsa, bachata, and Cuban son.
In Cali, Colombia, groups of decked-out salsa dancers in public parks are a common sight. Mariachis in Mexico liven up the streets and restaurantes. Even the Mayans in Guatemala play marimba in the plaza.
Latinos and Latinas have rhythm and aren’t afraid to shake their hips and show off on the dance floor. In some Latin countries, it is common for young people to go out after midnight to dance and party until morning. While the two cultures share this last aspect in common, in general, North Americans have more inhibitions about dancing in public.
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8. Beliefs and Religion
Latinos and Latinas tend to be conservative and traditional in their lifestyle and beliefs. Male chauvinism is common among Latin men, whereas the average man in the U.S has been taught that this attitude toward women is unacceptable. In combination with Latin men’s dominating attitudes, the majority of Latina women are more subservient compared to their stateside counterparts.
As for religion, Catholicism and evangelical Christianity are ubiquitous throughout Latin America, playing a significant role in daily life. The vast majority of the Spanish-speaking world is Roman Catholic. Historically, this religious worldview was a result of the influx of Spanish conquistadors in the area, and it has continued to influence the population over the centuries. Everyday, non-secular sayings such as Dios te bendiga (“God bless you”) are evidence of this historical influence.
Similarly, the Catholic religion is also predominant in Latino communities in the United States. The church influences life, family, and community affairs, giving a spiritual cohesion to Latin culture. The U.S. is a “tossed salad” of different faiths, as well as agnostics, atheists, and people who identify as spiritual but not religious.
9. Politics and Authority
Unfortunately, government ineptitude and blatant corruption rule in most of Latin America. Yet, can’t the same be said for the United States and many other developed nations? The difference is that the corruption in developed countries tends to be more subtle and hidden behind closed doors.
In Latin culture, people respect and admire authority figures—including doctors, lawyers, military officers, and business executives—for the positions they hold. Conversely, in American culture, people are often more individualistic and anti-authority.
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10. Sense of Control and View of Death
American culture instills the belief that the individual is in control and that change is good. On the other hand, many people in Latin culture believe more in destiny and that change disrupts harmony.
As for perspectives on the afterlife, these two cultures have divergent views on death. The cemeteries in Latin America versus the U.S. illustrate this stark difference. In Latin America, graveyards are colorful and eclectic; in the States, they are gray and uniform.
In Latin culture, early November is a sacred time to honor deceased loved ones through memories, rituals, and meditations. But really, it’s an everyday attitude. People see death as a transformation and a natural end of life. It’s something to honor and celebrate. In U.S. culture, death is shrouded in fear. It is a taboo subject that is not openly discussed.
Diversity is Beautiful
I hope this summary of cultural differences has given you some insight into the nuances of Latin culture.
Can you think of any other important cultural aspects that should be added to this list? Let me know in the comments!
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Please don’t use offensive terms like “Latinx” when writing about Latinos
Hi John, thank you for your opinion. While inclusive Spanish terms such as Latinx continue to be controversial, we believe that diversity and inclusion are essential for showing respect to all types of people.