I am generally not a confrontational person. I like things to be peaceful and don’t want to hurt anyone. The best examples of this are in regards to sharing living spaces. My very first roommate and I were both super passive aggressive and non-confrontational, and it led to a crazy toxic environment. We ended up living in huffing and door-slamming silence for a couple months until her lid blew – after I had finally been direct for once and asked directly for what I needed. After that I learned to communicate with the people with whom I was sharing a home…although it still was sometimes hard.
So too is it with Colombians. Before we moved in with our host families, we were told by our Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders to please shower regularly and use deodorant. These people, American PCVs who signed on for a third year extension to help us noobs get through our own two years, were telling us this because the Colombian staff member who should have been dishing out this advice was too embarrassed to broach the subject. As it is, when that staff member told us that we should always wash our own underwear regardless of whether or not our families wash the rest of our clothes, she sort of stuttered out these instructions.
But when it comes to telling you how you look on a given day? You will hear it clearly and directly.
“You are fat today!” is a phrase that every Peace Corps Volunteer in Colombia hears throughout their time living here. “You have a big zit on your chin!” is another.
And these are not responses to, “How do I look?” or “What’s my complexion like?” These are strictly unsolicited comments. (I should note that statements like, “You’re thin!” and “You look good!” are also told to people, but obviously these don’t have quite the same effect as the others.)
These statements really get to PCVs. They particularly are difficult for those of us who come from a culture* where appearance is something we generally don’t comment on unless handing out a compliment…or subtly trying to tell our homegirl that she’s got pepper stuck in her teeth or that her skirt is tucked into her tights. We definitely don’t go around vocally telling people they look fat, or have any family discussions about our weight.
I have a couple theories about why this happens:
- People are obsessed with appearances here. They want to know if they look fat or thin. And they want to help their friends and family members with their physical “ailments.”
- People don’t know what to talk about. They finish talking about how hot it is, and move onto how you look that day.
*While all Peace Corps Volunteers must be US citizens in order to serve, this does not necessarily mean they all come from the same cultural upbringing!