Florencio Sanchez (1875-1910) was a famous Uruguayan writer. One of this works was “”M’hijo el dotor”, which I find hard to translate, let’s say it’s something like “My son, the doctor”, but badly spelt. In Uruguay, we still use this phrase when we want to highlight just how important a title is for a person and their family. To have a “doctor” in your family brings you status and prestige. Things are changing, but you will find that a huge number of Uruguayans still prefer to study medicine, law or accountancy rather than engineering, software or industrial design.
What has this got to do with you and why is it important? Titles, in the whole of Latin America, not just in Uruguay, are important. And they are used often, as often as you can possibly fit them in, really. This is something that, after 13 years in the UK, where boasting like this is considered of bad taste, I still quite hard to get used to. But that’s the culture I live in, and it’s best if I share this with you and save you a headache or two.
So, first of all, greetings. You might get some sort of a “foreigner’s licence” and not be too punished for this, but, in general, and particularly for people “of a certain age”, you will be expected to greet them with their full title. So not “Juan” or “Señor Castro”, but “Ingeniero Castro”, “Doctor Castro” and so on. By the way, lawyers in most of Latin America are also “doctores” because they are “doctors in law”, that is their formal university title. And then there’s the “escribanos”, or notary publics, who have a lot of power here in South America, and the “contadores”, or accountants, who are also very well-regarded. So a full greeting will be welcomed. I still find it hilarious when I am introduced to someone as “la Economista Castro”, I’d rather be introduced for who I really am, rather than for what I happened to study at university, but that’s just me.
Then, signatures. What a debate I had on whether or not to include my title in my email signature and my business cards when moving to Uruguay! I opted not to (definitely not in my English signature) but you might want to do so. My (English) husband seems to be having fun being called “Ingeniero Smith”. He thinks it’s something to do with being “ingenious”, or “genius”. Let’s leave it there.
As “understated” as I tend to be, there’s one, just one occasion when using my title really works. And that’s when I try to get something for a client, particularly a meeting or a contact. You call and say you are “Gabriela Castro”, you might not get past the receptionist. You firmly say that “la Economista Castro” wants to speak to “el doctor Santos”, and you might be in. You see, it’s all about understanding the culture. And this is a lot more so the case in Mexico than in Uruguay, for example. Mexicans are a lot more traditional and titles play a much stronger role than in more liberal Uruguay. Titles are just one aspect of formality, something quite present across Latin America, especially in business. It always amazes me how Latin Americans can be so warm and friendly and yet so formal at the same time.
Of course, things are changing. Younger generations are a bit more relaxed about titles. I wonder if Don Florencio would now want to write a play about “my son, the programmer” or “my daughter, the community manager”. Only time will tell.
If you enjoyed reading this post, you might also be interested in “5 truths about business meetings in Latin America“. You can also check out our complimentary resources on Latin America and sign up to our newsletter.
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