A CULTURAL COMPARISON: COSTA RICA AND ITALY
Life Philosophy and Work-Life Balance
Costa Rica is a friendly and polite culture. People are very welcoming and they like to enjoy life. The local greeting and motto is “Pura vida,” which Costa Ricans use when they meet with someone. For Ticos (Costa Ricans), the term “Pura Vida” is an expression of happiness and optimism. It can be roughly translated as “Living life to the fullest.” It is truly impossible to visit Costa Rica without hearing this phrase. And hopefully, by the time you leave, this way to interpret life will have made its way into your heart and into how you perform your everyday habits.
In Italy, there are two similar expressions: “La dolce vita” (“Sweet life”) and “Il dolce far niente” (“The sweetness of doing nothing”). There is something more relaxed about this form of enjoying life. If I had to describe it with an image, I would say it is the tranquil enjoyment of the Mediterranean sea at the end of a sunny day, with the sound of seagulls and people talking in the distance. In any case, both Italians and Ticos seem to view life as a repository of thousands of brief moments of enjoyment that make life worth being lived and shared. There isn’t a stark division between work and leisure, but rather the idea that the two feed into each other.
To Kiss or Not To Kiss?
Since we’re mentioning this Cost Rican greeting, we might as well talk about how people greet each other. Generally speaking, it isn’t socially acceptable for men in Costa Rica to exchange kisses as a greeting, but women kiss each other on the cheek all the time. In business settings, however, they will just shake hands. This resembles greetings in Italy. In formal business situations, especially as a first business introduction, avoid kissing and go for a firm handshake.
However, it is not uncommon to be kissing your colleagues on the cheeks after a while. And unlike Costa Ricans, it’s not only the women or men with women who kiss each other on the cheek. Men can also kiss other men on the cheek. As for the dilemma, “One or two kisses?”… Well, my suggestion is to wait and mirror what others do. Just remember that you don’t want to actually lay your lips on the other person’s cheek. It’s a light cheek-to-cheek kind of touch, and the kiss is given to the air next to the skin.
Who is more likely to publicly disagree with you?
Moving away from greetings and kissing, we can say that, generally, Costa Ricans tend to be less confrontational than Italian people. In fact, Ticos are more reluctant to show anger in public, even if they have a legitimate reason to feel upset. This is because they are more collectivist and they tend to care more about preserving the harmony of the group. Therefore, they are more likely to be taught to settle their differences in a more laid-back way. Italians, on the contrary, can be quite confrontational, and often appreciate a heated discussion. However, if you are unsure about which topics are okay to talk about or how much controversy is too much controversy, try always to read the room and avoid the usual taboo subjects of politics and religion. Let your Italian counterparts judge whether it’s appropriate or not to make those the topics of conversation.
Family and Family Names
Being Costa Rica a collectivist country, it’s not surprising to hear that family is a highly important component of life. It is perhaps comparable in this respect to Southern rather than Northern Italy. Northern Italy, by contrast, tends to be more individualistic and career-focused.
Both in Costa Rica and in Italy, children don’t usually move out until later on in life. In fact, they don’t often move to other cities to study or work. In Costa Rica, multi-generational homes are quite common, and grandparents will frequently care for their grandchildren while their parents are at work. Even if it’s not very ordinary to see multi-generational homes in Italy, it is certainly true that families are the backbone of the Italian society, and that grandparents are a very essential form of care and support for the Italian parents. And in both Costa Rica and Italy family-owned businesses and very common and generally highly valued.
When we’re talking about family names, Costa Rica and Italy behave differently. Women rarely take their husband’s surname when they get married in Costa Rica. And children receive a surname that combines both their mother’s and father’s names. However, the father’s last name is listed first and the mother’s maiden name comes second. And when people sign formal documents, they often use just the initials of their mother’s maiden name at the end.
In Italy, on the other hand, it’s quite common to take on the husband’s surname when a woman marries. However, in a landmark decision, in May 2022, the Italian constitutional court has ruled that children born in Italy can be given their mother’s surname.
Although both cultures can be said to be struggling when we consider gender roles and gender equality, Italian culture seems to objectify more women’s bodies. In fact, great emphasis is placed on thinness. Costa Rican women don’t experience the same pressure as Italian women to meet a specific body type. Additionally, they are less likely to develop eating disorders and other mental illnesses caused by a poor body image. This is also reflected in branding and advertisement, where the typically European thinness sells less.
Food-wise, rice and beans are the most popular dish in Costa Rica. They can be served with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Lunchtime usually happens between 2 and 3 p.m and it typically consists of rice, beans, meat, picadillo, salad, and sometimes, fried plantains. This dish is called a Casado.
In Italy, the universally-accepted morning meal is the sweet continental breakfast with coffee, biscuits, cereal and milk, or bread and jam. And a typical lunch or dinner at the restaurant will consist of three courses: starter, primo , and secondo . But, unlike popular belief, many Italians actually have only one main course. Pasta, of course, is the ever-present typical meal. A product Costa Ricans and Italians have in common, however, is coffee. Costa Rica is famous for its Arabica coffee, which is produced in the country, and the locals love drinking it. However, Italians will tell you, it’s not of the same intense quality as Italian coffee.
What is certainly common to both cultures is that meals are occasions to build and nurture relationships. Italians talk so much about food and coffee breaks because it’s a core element of their social interaction and of how they form strong bonds with people, even in a business context. The same is absolutely true for Costa Ricans. A meal brings people together and, if you want to gain somebody’s trust, aim for the stomach and you win their hearts too.
Religion and Celebrations
Costa Rica is 70% Catholic. Catholicism is the official religion, but it is more casually celebrated than in certain parts of Italy. The most important celebratory periods for Costa Ricans are the Semana Santa (Easter) and Christmas, whereas Easter is losing relevance among non-practicing and non-religious Italians.
Costa Rica also celebrates Children’s Day. It was established in 1946 with the aim of recognising the needs and rights of children. On Children’s Day, many businesses offer special sales for children and families go out for a meal together. Finally, we should mention two other popular Costa Rican traditions: fiestas – with bullrings and rodeos – and market fairs, called “’ferias”. The latter are held every week and they are occasions for farmers and craftsmen to sell their products.
Costa Ricans are generally highly skilled and well-educated. They start school at the age of 5 and they leave at the age of 18, with many continuing on to higher education. In Costa Rica, university campuses are usually just one building. This building will contain classrooms, offices, and any other services the university provides, such as cafeterias and libraries. Students live in the surrounding area, not on-campus. This is also the norm in Italy. However, the university buildings are often fully integrated within the cityscape, with different departments often being spread across the city and not all under one roof. Another difference that is worth mentioning, is that 80% of Costa Rican universities are in the capital city, whereas in Italy universities are very much spread out, with each medium or big city having its own public university.
The fees in public universities are about the same in both countries, with Costa Rica offering more scholarships to support students. The acceptance rate in Costa Rican public universities is extremely lower – only 25% in the largest university – than in Italy and the number of private universities is also relatively higher. We can also mention the fact that, unlike in Italy, in Costa Rica a significant percentage of students works during the day. For this reason, evening classes are extremely popular in the Spanish-speaking country.
Punctuality and Organisation
Costa Ricans have a very loose concept of punctuality. They don’t obsess about time nearly as much as Italians do. This is also true about formal meetings, businesses and the postal system. The delays in the postal service can also be explained by the fact that Costa Rica only introduced street signs and street names in 2012. Locations are still not marked clearly. There are few street signs pointing to specific locations, and addresses are also less likely to be marked. For this reason, navigators are not very reliable either. In the same way, bureaucracy is looser and less standardised and convoluted. Even for an Italian who feels well-versed in the bureaucratic waters of their own country, Costa Rica might prove challenging from this point of view, but the locals will happily help you navigate the difficulties, maybe over a meal together.
Costa Rica is one of the most prosperous and politically stable countries of Latin America. Over the years, the country has made giant steps forward to invite foreign trade and foreign direct investments. Its stability, attractive free trade zone incentives, geographical location, and ease to access the domestic market, as well as the presence of a trained and experienced English-speaking labour force are some of the reasons why many international companies have chosen Costa Rica to open their manufacturing and R&D facilities. Recently, its outrageously beautiful landscapes are also attracting the digital nomad community. Whether you’ve already been considering visiting Costa Rica or you’re hearing about it for the first time, we hope this article will help you better understand the country and prepare for your trip or move there.