February 7, 2007

Cultural differences: Compromisos

Compromiso means commitment in English. It seems to have no meaning in Spanish.

A Honduran compromiso is a difficult concept for many North Americans to understand. A promise to come by tomorrow at 2 p.m., or fix your television by Friday, or to have that part you ordered by next week, or come to work tomorrow doesn't really mean anything. It might mean tomorrow at 8 a.m. or next month or three months from now or never.

An example is a mechanic in San Pedro Sula. He was recommended to us by another mechanic and friend here in La Ceiba who didn't know how to fix the problem. The San Pedro mechanic seemed knowledgeable, confident, and eager to repair the car. After numerous phone calls and bus trips to San Pedro in which El Jefe was assured each time that car would be ready by "Friday," THREE MONTHS later, he went to pick up our car. It wasn't repaired and he had to wait while the mechanics put the pieces back together so he could drive it home unrepaired.

There is usually no explanation and if you say, "Oh, I thought you were going to be here on Wednesday," people will often tell you that they had a compromiso − to someone else! Only very, very rarely will someone let you know that they won't be performing whatever it is that they said they would do and that is only if you contact them.

One (of many) examples is a man who was installing some fencing for us. He finished 90% of the work by Friday, asked for payment, and said he would be back on Monday to complete the job. Six weeks later he showed up out of the blue to finish. His explanation? "I had a compromiso." Many others would have taken the money and never return, so we were satisfied.

Another example is our air conditioner. We hired someone who was highly recommended to us. The man wrote out a contract for the installation, to be paid upon completion, which we agreed to and signed. He did a little of the work and asked for an advance. Even though we weren't required to, we gave it to him because we always try to be fair with people.

Two months later, he returned and did another couple hours of work and asked for an advance. This time we weren't so understanding and said that we would be happy to pay the entire contract the moment the job is finished.

Over the next TEN MONTHS, he would show up or send a worker or two, do a couple of hours of work and leave again for months. Our air conditioner was actually out of warranty by the time it was installed. He even had the temerity to suggest that because the job took so long, we should pay him extra, even though all told over a year's time, they didn't do more than a week's worth of actual work.

The best that I can tell is that a compromiso to other people is honored whereas a compromiso to you is not. Interestingly, if you do not honor your own compromiso, you sometimes will be called on that, "You are late," "You said you would pick up the order at noon," etc.

Often the specific promise is not that important. You learn to accept compromisos, especially those that include deadlines, with a grain of salt. It's really not crucial if someone comes to visit on Saturday or not until Sunday, or if your part doesn't come this week, but maybe next week instead. Other times it's a huge waste of time and money and it would be so much more considerate to let you know the truth.

Many say that these false promises are considered polite, that people don't want to say "No, I can't do something" or "I don't have time." Of course, the same thing probably happens in most countries, especially with contractors and builders, but it definitely is more pronounced here in Honduras. I've heard as many complaints from Hondurans as I have from gringos so I don't think that it is a purely cultural thing.

Coming from a culture where we are proud to say "My word is my bond," and most people want to be known as an honest, reliable, and dependable person, it is a difficult adjustment.
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