Bogota’s Unbearable Politeness of Being

BOGOTÁ — My friend Vicki over at Banana Skin Flip Flops has an intriguing post up about the polite passivity of Bogotanos. After a few passive-aggressive encounters, including one in which a guy splashed her on the street with his car, she snaps and calls BS on the good people of Bogotá and their general lack of consideration for others, which is masked by a patina of gentility.

They cannot handle fuss, they cannot accept public scenes. They need everything wrapped in a veneer of politeness, genuine or otherwise, simply to be able to function. That guy drenched me but I am telling you, I ruined his day tenfold. He is probably still inwardly furious about it now.

My friends are the same, they dislike anything that comes close to a breach of decorum and would have been shocked by my behaviour that day (to be honest, since the robbery, I am friends again with my vulnerability and frightened, once again, of confrontation) but that is just it. Our society warns us never to complain. It insists we see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil. Calling someone complicated in English makes them interesting, calling them complicada here is an insult. We are all too afraid to fight the good fight.

This is by far the single most befuddling trait I’ve encountered here. My Colombian friends agree that they’re taught not to complain, not to make a fuss, to just put up with shit, to just endure. I’ve found that conflict-averse personalities dominate here, which often leads to a lot of sneaky passive-aggresive behavior and, frankly, a fair amount of back-biting and bitchiness — especially in the workplace.

But it’s the everyday interactions that will drive someone like me, a grade-A Type-A (aka “pushy asshole”), into teeth-clenching moments of tearful frustration. When people cut in lines, nick taxis after they’ve been called, shrug resignedly when I suggest calling the Internet company to report a problem, I end up sounding like a raving leftist calling for justice, rule of law and the following of rules. Bogotanos, with characteristic passivity, just shrug and say, “Ah, que pena por usted,” which is about as insincere an expression of regret as exists in any language.

But it’s worth noting where this passivity comes from. For practically the entirety of Colombia’s existence, it has been in some state of civil conflict. The last 50 years have been particularly biblical in terms of body counts. As the International Crisis Group notes, “Over five decades, the conflict has claimed the lives of an estimated 220,000, displaced over five million and made refugees of nearly 400,000.” In short, mouthing off to the wrong people can get you dead, and quick.

Colombia also still labors under the heel of a feudal aristocracy. Poor farmers are routinely screwed by the landed gentry, who are often backed up by paramilitary groups or even the Colombian military; the political elites have swapped offices, including the presidency, like a game of musical chairs for generations; drug money — and lots of it — swamped the country in the 1980s until now, perverting the value systems of many and generating a class of nouveau riche assholes who act with impunity. All this adds up to a sliver of society — often backed by the state or private militias — that know they can get away with murder.

Thus, the majority of Bogotanos live in a constant state of anxiety that they are about to be killed, robbed or otherwise screwed. They are often terrified of their fellow rolos. The desire — indeed, the demand — for a politeness between citizens, even if it’s completely insincere and used to obtain advantage over others makes a lot more sense in this context.

In the novel, “The Sound of Things Falling”, author Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s examines the impact of the recent drug violence on Bogotanos. In an interview with the Huffington Post, he said he realized the story of one of his character’s, “could be the story of anyone in my generation who is a type of victim of the terrorism of the 80s and 90s.”

I left Colombia in ‘96, Pablo Escobar was killed in December 1993 and with his death that decade of terrorism and living in fear came to a close. I personally experienced two or three bombs just at the beginning of 1993. Those were very difficult months in Bogotá. So, since I left in ‘96, when I started the novel all of that seemed so long ago and I seriously began to ask if people had actually not lived in as much fear as I remembered, if the danger had not been that great. Because quickly I began to realize that the novel touched upon something that I hadn’t seen in Colombian literature, which was to tell the intimate, private, emotional side of what it was like to live in Bogotá during that time when you had no direct connection with the narco trafficking or violence.

… I didn’t come to a conclusion, but I did discover that everyone has some latent thing there, a difficult relationship with the city because of it, a difficult relationship with our memory because of it, that we’ve all had a brush with severe violence, that we’ve all known someone who was wounded by a bomb or a shootout. Those were years that everyone was marked in some way.

So is it any wonder the poor and middle class of this country finds what dignity it can with passive politeness? And is it any wonder that when they have the opportunity to exercise power over someone, they will? 

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