I have met plenty of gringos in my life, all from different countries. Gringos who know nothing about other cultures and are not interested in learning, gringos who think their ways are the only acceptable ways, gringos who feel superior to the rest of the world but are terrified to have new cultural experiences, gringos who are easy to fool, gringos who would take toilet paper to Bolivia because they thought they wouldn’t find any there.

For those who don’t know yet, “gringo” is how people in Latin America and Spain generally refer to Caucasian or English speaking foreigners. Its origin is widely debated; one of the theories is that it derives from the word “Greek”, referring to an unintelligible language, so it refers to anyone whose original language is not Spanish, and who has trouble learning Spanish. Another theory is that Mexicans used to scream “green-go!” to US soldiers, whose uniforms were green, during the American Civil War.

Over time and across different Spanish speaking countries this term acquired different meanings and connotations. It can refer to anyone from a non-Spanish-speaking western country, to European immigrants in Latin America, to people from the US, or to any foreigner who’s not of a clearly distinct race. Sometimes it’s used in a derogatory way, as it implies certain undesirable attitudes and behaviors that I will explain later, or it can be simply used to indicate the person’s race or nationality—sometimes it can even be used as a cute nickname. As the slang that it is, the meaning varies a lot and can be determined based on the tone of voice and context.

Its derogatory use, in terms of attitude and behavior, can refer to someone who, when travelling to another country without knowing much about local culture, will act with an air of superiority, but at the same time will be afraid of pretty much everything, from the people to the food. Sometimes the good kind of gringos will feel pity for the apparent poor reality that some locals live in so, at best, they try to help in some very paternalistic ways—perhaps because they feel guilty to be born in such advantaged societies. And some other times, gringos are overexcited about everything but, actually, can’t really handle the local customs. For this reason, gringos become an easy target for all sorts of exploitations, as they can be considered weak both physically and emotionally by locals; they are also often ridiculed. Consequently, it turns into a vicious circle as their fears materialize.

It takes no genius to see the lack of cultural intelligence in someone who acts like that. Cultural intelligence is, as Professor David Livermore explains, the capability to interact effectively with different cultures, and to be able to apply wisdom to those interactions. I recommend taking a look at some of his books:

Personally, I don’t like making general distinctions based on race or nationality. The reason I’m describing the term gringo here is because I want to expand on the attitudes that it sometimes implies. The way I see it, gringo behavior is not something characteristic of any country or race in particular. We can all act gringo wherever we’re from and wherever we go. It’s mostly a matter of how we view ourselves and the new culture we are being exposed to. All over the world there are people who are blinded by their paradigms and their own understanding of reality, so much that they may find others’ behaviors threatening; sometimes something as simple as what people of other cultures eat or wear may be a trigger for judgment and belittlement.

For instance, many expect immigrants to mold into their culture so that they don’t disturb their reality; they want them to dress, eat, speak and think like they do. Or they expect tourists to behave in a way that wouldn’t attract too much attention (because the fact that they look different is outrageous enough). This view of the foreigner will shape our attitude when it’s our turn to travel (if we do at all), whether for tourism or to stay. Many people see foreigners as no more than strangers, disassociating themselves from the others; in fact, they even treat some of their own co-nationals as outsiders when they don’t look the same. This is because our understanding of world civilization is greatly categorized by races and social class (very co-related in many instances), or by religions and ideologies.

Another way in which we can all be gringos sometimes is by feeling pity for someone else in some other part of the world: pity for those who live in poverty, for those who live in conflict, for those who don’t have opportunities, for those who are ignorant about the world, for those who are ignorant about their own countries, for those who are brain-washed by their governments, for those who are immersed in consumerism, for those who live stressful lives without motivation, for those who live in individualistic societies and feel lonely, etc. I say: stop! Nobody needs your pity anymore. The world doesn’t need more pity (it’s a condescending, belittling and egocentric emotion; and often leads to patronizing and limited aid); what we need is sympathy (feeling compassion for someone who you consider equal to you, which may drive you to listen to their perspectives and help them create opportunities for their own wellbeing) and, more so, we need to be conscious of the oneness of humankind so that we can view our differences as opportunities to become more well-rounded individuals and, as a result, a richer world civilization.

Our understanding of our world can be so segregationist that we create distance from each other. Our eyes are so misguided by superficial differences that we attribute those differences to our human essence. Our minds are so numbed by the stereotypes we have learned that we miss out on learning new perspectives. We end up missing out on so much that it’s actually sad; it’s especially sad coming from people who brag about how many places they’ve visited but consider foreigners as just exotic or unfortunate people in need, at best; those people may have traveled wide, but not deep.

The more consciously we engage with local cultures, the more we will be able to defy ethnocentrism, to be less gringos, because even if you are a good person and you aren’t racist, when you’re faced with new cultures you will realize how much of your sympathy is bound only to your own environment.

Sometimes we forget that the diversity of cultures in our world is one of the major facts that makes our world rich and worth saving. Different cultures represent different views of reality, our cultures shape our behaviors and principles, so the more we familiarize ourselves with different cultures the richer our minds will be, the greater our knowledge and therefore the greater our opportunities; and also, it will make it easier for us to navigate our diverse and increasingly globalized world. On the other hand, by learning about other cultures and other perspectives, we are able to understand what forces mold our own cultures and values, which will allow us to free ourselves from imposed roles and reassess how we feel about certain things. Finally, when we open our minds we see that all humans have more in common than we have differences. Humans everywhere are concerned with covering basic needs, with caring for those who we consider family, with being happy. So let’s not confuse personal attitudes with culture, let’s not assume that one person’s behavior defines a whole culture or nation -like thinking that a whole population is violent based on the behavior of a few, or thinking that a whole nation is arrogant, or ignorant, based on the behavior of a few gringos. This is being culturally dumb.

Of course we don’t need to know everything about all cultures to be culturally intelligent, but we could try learning about what happens in other cultures in the subjects we are personally interested in –art, food, fashion, politics, economy, etc. Besides, cultural intelligence is deeper than just knowing facts about other cultures: it means that we try exposing ourselves to different ways of being (other cultures, other religions, other political views, etc.), that we try to be open-minded in our interactions and that we are wisely respectful in them, with a genuine interest in learning something new. It also suggests that in our interactions with someone different we don’t assume things; we try thinking about the reasons behind their perspectives in life. So my suggestion is that we all make some effort in developing our cultural intelligence, even if we don’t travel, just for the sake of becoming more interesting and improved people, so we can deal better with our diverse societies and promote harmony.

“The difference in adornment of color and capacity of reflection among the flowers gives the garden its beauty and charm… Even though each soul has its own individual perfume and color, all are reflecting the same light, all contributing fragrance to the same breeze which blows through the garden, all continuing to grow in complete harmony and accord.” – Bahá’í teachings

qino y emma

For a short and humorous explanation of cultural intelligence, click here

One thought on “The cultural intelligence of a “gringo”

  1. loved it , because it started with the word : gringo: and i was not expecting to be ended about equqlity and unity among the people of the world. very sharp view point. well done ruha.


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