Learning Uruguay

Every day brings ????


Posted by urufish on September 13, 2007


When I started back to work, a lot of my spare time disappeared…  But that isn’t the primary reason I dont blog much any more.  The real culprit is isolation.  While working, my head is in Canada and the USA.   Even when I’m out and about here, my brain is still solving problems several thousand miles away.  I dont ‘see’ as much as I saw before. 

But today was special.  I had one of those ‘Uruguay’ moments.  I went out to Zonamerica to pay my office rent.  That would be a post in itself, but it’s not worth writing about it.  I dont know how to use the mail service.  I dont want to learn.  Why?  Because I hated it in Canada and it’s worse here.  Matter of principle.  I’d rather drive for an hour and deliver a cheque into someone’s hand.  Besides, I’m friends now with the cashier in the Administration office in Zonamerica.  He helps me spell the numbers on the cheque 🙂

 The ‘special’ day occurred when we left Zonamerica.  When we approached the gate this time, there was actually another vehicle going through the guard station.  I decided to follow him.  It was a FedEx truck.  When he pulled out, I pulled up to the guard, rolled open my window, showed him both my hands in the universal symbol, ‘no tengo nada’ and expected him to waive me through.  Wrong.  He gave me a stern look and motioned for me to go away.. go backwards.  He was telling me something but I didn’t get it.  My wife was with me and she said he’s telling you to back up.  I ask why.  She says because this is he lane for trucks…   We both looked at each other and went… ‘is this guy nuts?’   There’s no reason for us not to use this lane.  It’s ONLY for trucks because it has a weigh scale.  It’s not meant to refuse cars.. it’s meant to weigh trucks…   No one else was there but us.  I made a sign like you’ve got to be kidding.  He wasn’t.

So we backed up about 100 feet (still no one else there), swung over into the other lane, (btw – neither lane was marked… I call this the Uruguayan secret handshake… you’re ‘supposed’ to know this somehow)..  and drove up to the SAME GUARD WHO WALKED TO THE NEXT LANE.  The guy was now smiling and happy and waived us through.. Have a nice day… 

So, here’s the reason for the post.  Why is it that Uruguayans do this.  It’s not just the truck lane in Zonamerica.  We see this everywhere, mostly every day.  Someone is following some kind of loopy rule that makes no sense to any normal person but there it is, he’s telling you this is the rule, (could be a female in that role too – doesn’t matter). 

I asked my wife if you were in that situation, wouldn’t you think that was a dumb thing.  She said yes.  I asked her if this was because she lived the last 40 years in Canada?  She said probably not.. It would be stupid to anyone.  So I asked her if you were the guard, would you make me back up.  She thought about that some and said, yes, IF her boss had told that cars couldn’t use this lane and if she would be fired for letting someone through. 

So that begs the question… is the guard, (your average Uruguayan), thinking what he’s doing is stupid and just following orders or does the guard (Uruguayan) actually believe that these otherwsie stupid situations are actually meaningful and that really is important that a car not use a truck lane.. even though there’s no one else there? 

This comes up frequently for me with cheques.  I frequently misspell words in Spanish.  The dumbest one to date is spelling quinientos as cinientos.   I’ve seen lots of spelling mistakes on english cheques.  They go through no problem.  But do that here in Uruguay and the check will be refused.  Write the date wrong (eg. spell Agosto Augusto) or heaven forbid, write a shortform (eg. Ag)… and you’re in deep kaka. 

The first cheque I ever wrote was refused because you’re supposed to write in the city you’re in at the moment you sign the cheque.  I didn’t notice that 3 point pitch ‘lugar de pago’  I thought it was background noise.  Back home, someone else would write it in and even initial it on behalf of someone else, (saw that done many, many times in the business world).   But not in Uruguay.  It’s like it’s a sacred thing here. 

 So the question left in my mind is this.  Do Uruguayans do this because

a) they really believe it should be done that way

b) really believe they’ve be fired or reprimanded if they let something like this pass

c) follow the rules, express or implied, because that’s they way they’ve always done it?


11 Responses to “Urobots”

  1. Gaston said

    As an Uruguayan, I can say (IMHO) that common people do not like getting into things they do not understand. Some might not want to do it for some reason, some believe they simply do not need to do it. It goes nicely with the laid back and ‘not getting into what does not concern me’ philosophy so widespread in the country.

    As your wife correctly pointed out, sometimes it responds to an implicit fear of some sort (losing a job, being blamed if something goes wrong, getting stuck with a responsibility he/she didn’t want to have, etc). The comment that usually follows any observation regarding that happening is (or at least, used to be) “A mi no me pagan por pensar” lit. “I’m not paid to do the thinking here”. Alluding that if something is wrong with the way things are, they should be blamed to the one who is in charge or who is being paid to bear that responsibility.

    Summarizing, people are not encouraged to do more than what is strictly required of them. This is specially common among low wages jobs (as it is to be a gate guard for example) but it does not only apply to Uruguay alone. I’ve been around and I’ve seen the same kind of behavior in many other countries as well.

    Just be patient, smile and make them feel important. In the end, it’s only a matter of self esteem.

    Greetings and thanks for the great blogging,


  2. Daniel said

    I feel for you. I left Uruguay almost 30 years ago and go back often to visit family and for business. A lot of things do not make sense and it will take a few Grapa-Miel and cafecitos to discover the reasons behind. I do agree with Gaston, It is not only an Uruguayan “thing”. Without going too far, today here in Los Angeles, I went to a “Coffee Bean” to get a cup of coffee. When I asked for a specialty drink, they responded – What size? I said what sizes you have? The “associate” told me Medium and Large. I inmediately reply – you must mean small and large. I was told – No, Medium and Large. Yes, you guessed right. I went for it and proceeded to explain that to have a medium, you must have bla, bla, bla… In short, this associate refused to used her brain and probably for the same reasons that guard made you go back. Thanks for the blog.

  3. Harry said

    This tale reminds of an incident many years ago when I walked into an office with one person behind the counter and no one else there, except my wife and kids.
    I walked up to the counter and started to try to transact some business. The guy told me to take a number from the center of the room. I started towards the number dispenser.
    At that point my cousin, a Porteno, came in and saw what was happening.
    He wasn’t taking any nonsense.
    He stormed to the dispenser, spitting angry comments, and started pulling the numbers as fast as he could. When he had a mound of them, he dumped them on the counter.
    We all walked out, having a good laugh and a small measure of revenge.

  4. Shirley said

    And the next question is, why does this attitude completely disappear when it comes to driving?? Not much rule-following in evidence there….

  5. la vieja said

    Ahhhh the Uruguayan robotic mentality. There are bazillion comedic and tragic examples which could play as a never ending telenovela. The reason the agressive, rule breaking, non conforming behavior appears behind the wheel is BECAUSE IT CAN. Within one’s vehicle the driver is the BOSS. Here he has the power which, in some way compensates for the impotence in the work setting.

  6. Gaston said

    It does not apply to driving because there’s a car around shielding you.

    Actually, by comparing how Uruguayans drive and how they behave (perform, pretend) while in a position to be judged, you can understand a lot more about the undercurrents stirring the society from within. Each car is for itself, each family is a world of its own, etc. You should check the level of domestic violence in the country… I can’t give proper figures because I don’t have them but I do remember the time when women started speaking out and husbands sent to prison for abuse. They said the violence wasn’t the recent happening but that the opening was. No one seemed to notice, privacy means private in Uruguay.

    A personal theory I have (and some friends share) is that, historically, the country was formed by very different groups of people coming from devastated countries. I am talking about the time of the big immigration waves during the 19 century, the ones that shaped the present identity of the country and not the one (mainly Spanish revolutionaries) who sent the country into getting its independence. Those groups of immigrants came to an empty and quite underpopulated country. Many of them didn’t even consider making it a permanent home, they were just there in order to get enough means to return and live a better life in their original countries. Most of them didn’t even care where they were going as long as it was in “America”. They didn’t even get proper Uruguayan ID’s or even citizenships.
    There was a time when the local government depended on community associations to assure that immigrants -who didn’t even speak the language- knew what the regulations were at the time. Those groups lived their own private lives, working, dreaming of going back to their countries and not worrying too much about the improvement of their “temporary” host country. As time passed, their offspring’s mixed, language became one, they invented tango and pizza a caballo but they never became a “people”.

    Being in a peaceful country with no natural disasters and no lack of food, there was no external force to make them come together to pursue a common goal. The ideas of being on one’s own, of not belonging, of feeling different or above everyone else are endemic to the Uruguayan society. We always call the country as being populated more by chieftains than by normal indians… a place where everyone is a DT (coach)… where the “viveza criolla” (the term used to describe the attitude of taking advantage of the system’s flaws) is highly praised… etc.

    I live in the antipodes from my country. The farthest place on the planet both geographically and culturally speaking. In Japan, the Uruguayan idiosyncrasy would be an heresy punished by implicit ostracism by the Japanese themselves. They are that different. As much as I like the way they live, work and think, I believe both places lack the necessary balance to achieve a rich and striving society in which everyone feels part of it in the right amount.

    Too late to be writing this much, I usually never post comments on blogs… but this topic seemed to have touched a soft spot. 😉


  7. Shirley said

    Wow — great insights, Gaston. I’m glad you made an exception and posted your comments.

    When I have been in situations with Uruguayans where they seemed to be mindlessly rule-following and I challenged it, the reaction I sense is not one of annoyance or a desire to be controlling, but rather a feeling of discomfort, even alarm, sometimes almost panic. Mixed with that is their confusion at the fact that I am not feeling that same discomfort. So at least in some situations I think the behavior stems from the sense of comfort derived from knowing the rules, and following them, and knowing that others they interact with will do the same. It is a ritual. When I treat the interaction as a ritual, a dance, all seems to go smoothly for me as well as for them, so the paradigm fits.

  8. Irv-

    Are we kidding ourselves about the quality of life here to some degree? This nit picky stuff is big waste of time. As a pitchman for UY this kind of worries me.

    I on the flip side of the coin, when we’re doing business with individuals/small companies, we find too much of what is called, “Flexibility.” I love it; this is Shorthand for I’m going to do what’s “easy” for me. Which can mean bending the rules up to 180 degrees to make sure the course of least resistance is dialed in.

    The other thing that drives me nuts is the disdain for written agreements; I don’t mean legally binding stuff, but things to show who does what, when and what the rules are. Simple management plans.

    How can there be all these silly back up 30 meters for no reason rules and then the wild, wild south zero to nil business procedures?

    These two diametrically opposed traits are mind-boggling.

    PS: This is not a PMS rant, just the end to an up-side-down business week from hell.


  9. Ant said

    I have never seen any car using the center lane (the one with the weigh scale). Although I do tend to side with your wife here.

  10. gaberoo said

    I share your personal theory (and may even have posted a comment about it…if I didn’t before it’s because sometimes I hesitate to discuss “dirty laundry” with expats who, maybe, see Uruguay with different eyes; besides,who am I, with my cynical point of view, to ruin this for them or to somehow induce preconceptions/prejudices).
    A well-known joke (about Argentinians, but it applies to Uruguayans as well I fear) goes something like this:
    When God created the world and saw the barren island that Japan is, he felt it needed to be compensated for and placed the industrious Japanese there. When he saw the well-endowed Argentina, he likewise compensated for the incredible wealth the land had and…placed the Argentinians there!
    The sons of Spain who originally colonized Latin America had one thing on their mind: plunder and conquest, not freedom of religion. They came with a mercenary mindset thinking always to return to “la madre patria” (the “motherland”, Spain) with the riches taken from the new world colonies (it was never their intent to actually make these colonies “home” even though they eventually, some of them anyway, fought to make these independent).
    About the individuality and selfish “looking out for number one” mentality, a popular tango says it all: Cambalache (el que no llora no mama, y el que no afana es un gil). My friends and I used to joke that there were so many “vivos” in Uruguay, that we needed to import “bobos” (or “giles”).

  11. Anonymous said

    The explanation is very simple!!!!! Because we are naturally disorganized cultures, with no sense of order, personal responsibility or accountability, we are forced to institute measures, rules, whatever to tame the chaos, and to do it in an authoritarian way, because basically, accountability is a two way street. No reponsibility, no trust, and vice-versa. Try Brazil, where all these phenomena are taken to the nth power.

    Doing business in Uruguay is like running a kindergarden at best, and a school for the mentally impaired at worst.

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