From customs to tradition: 9 things you didn’t know about Cuban culture
WELCOME TO CUBA!! (Handshake, handshake, hug, kiss, kiss.) WE’RE SO GLAD YOU’RE HERE! …Now what?
It’s common when traveling to another country to want to be fully immersed in their culture, at least once you get there. It’s also normal to not be overly familiar with local customs and traditions. Aside from learning these about these things because you’re interested, it will serve you well to familiarize yourself with them before you visit.
You may think you’re knowledgeable about Cuba – and perhaps you are. But the truth is, Cuba (and Cuban culture) has drastically changed since the Cuban Revolution in 1959. While the country is still a “throwback” in many ways (antique cars and historical architecture especially), what you think you know about Cuba may be due for some updates.
Now you’re ready! Let’s take a look at 10 things you may not know about Cuban culture.
CUBAN CULTURE: What does being “Cuban” mean?
When someone tells you they’re “Cuban,” what exactly does that mean? Cuban culture and history are a bit more eclectic than you may realize. The country is truly a mixed bag when it comes to ethnicities, due to the history of both Spanish influence and slave trade.
The majority of Cubans come from Spanish and African descent. In contrast, the segment of the population that is aboriginal is very low (and typically located in Guantanamo). With the addition of Asian descent being common, a large percentage of Cubans are considered mestizo or mulatto (a mix of races).
CUBAN CULTURE: What about the language?
Spanish is the most predominantly spoken language in Cuba. This is no surprise. If you’re a Spanish speaker (particularly a Spanish speaker who learned the language in the United States), you should have no problem understanding and interacting with locals. Cuban Spanish, while similar to other Caribbean dialects, is rooted in traditional Castilian Spanish (from Spain).
Curious about local dialects and colloquialisms? Check a few out here.
CUBAN CULTURE: Communication style.
Cubans tend to be louder, more expressive, and, perhaps, more aggressive when communicating than other nationalities may be accustomed to. Fear not! It’s simple to learn what to expect when in Cuba. Here are a few notable observations:
- When speaking with someone, direct eye contact is much more preferred over indirect or fleeting eye contact. It is common to look someone directly in the eyes for the majority of the time you speak with them, as it’s viewed as a show of respect and demonstration of interest.
- Do not be alarmed if you see or hear loud conversations, especially with hand gestures. This is completely common and rarely means danger or anger – Cubans simply enjoy being very expressive!
If someone puckers his or her lips, they’re probably pointing in the direction of the person, place, or thing they’re referring to. Wrinkling or scrunching up one’s nose is also common – usually implying a question of “Huh?” or “What?”
CUBAN CULTURE: Personal space.
Do you get nervous when people you don’t know get particularly close to you? If so, this is important to note before you visit Cuba. In Cuban culture, it’s customary to be in close quarters (not just at home – this also applies in public). Privacy and private space are not valued as highly here as they are in the U.S.
In fact, physical contact even among strangers is the norm. You might experience a handshake upon meeting a complete stranger for the very first time. However, it’s more common to greet everyone when entering a room, shaking all hands of present men (as well as hugging them oftentimes), and kissing women on the cheek.
CUBAN CULTURE: Etiquette.
Generally, “good manners” as you know them are similar in Cuba. A few small differences to note:
- Cubans like to be friendly – to locals as well as visitors. In fact, they view generosity, kindness, and willingness to be hospitable as very highly valued qualities.
- Touching people is normal. Here, it’s more a demonstration of affection or used for emphasis when speaking.
- It’s commonly understood that “Cubans loathe open conflict and will typically minimize interpersonal conflicts by expressing them through innuendo rather than direct accusation.”
- That being said, when you hear people speaking loudly, complaining, or possibly arguing, this is usually more an expressive discussion than it is a fight or severe disagreement (in public).
CUBAN CULTURE: Education.
The Cuban approach to education may be a bit of a mystery to visitors from other countries. Interestingly, Cuba actually boasts one of the best educational systems in Latin America – with a very successful 97%+ literacy rate.
It’s basically required for school aged children to attend school at least until the age of 15. Once there, they do have the choice of leaving school. While many do go on to complete more technical training (think: farming, mechanics, production, etc.), secondary education and university are options. For those who are eligible to attend university, it is free to all students!
CUBAN CULTURE: Taboos (especially for travelers).
Generally speaking, Cuban culture is one of cohesiveness, inclusion, direct interaction, and enjoyment. They love to share their lives and their culture with visitors! While happy and hospitable, this does not make them immune to sometimes ending up offended. Try to avoid these taboos when in Cuba:
- Spitting on the ground or blowing your nose in public.
- Taking pictures of anyone (without first asking their permission).
- Littering (this is not only rude, but it’s also against the law).
CUBAN CULTURE: Punctuality and schedules.
Be prepared to be on time – but to be understanding if others aren’t! Cubans are much more laid back about schedules and time, favoring experiences with people over adherence to schedules or timelines.
Similarly, travel schedules (bus, plane, train, etc) aren’t always strictly followed (they usually aren’t, in fact). For individuals, being late is normal (to parties, functions, etc.). It’s not considered rude here – it’s considered commonplace.
CUBAN CULTURE: Laws on drinking, smoking, and drugs.
Parents, this information is especially for you! While there is a legal age to purchase alcohol – 16 years old – it isn’t readily enforced. On top of that, there is no legal drinking age in Cuba. Similarly, there is no legal smoking age or legal age to purchase tobacco products.
Conversely, penalties for possession, acquisition, and trafficking of drugs are severe and include mandatory lengthy imprisonment in local jails. Be sure you don’t bring anything with you that may land you in hot water!
Armed with this handy information on Cuban culture, you’re just about ready to go. All you need now is a free flight from Miami to Havana (or a trip credit if you’re not flying from Miami). Get in on this deal before the free flights are gone (quantities are limited)!
Which of our Cuba trips would you most love to go on? Tell us in the comments below!