It has always struck me how polite the average Colombian is and the extent to which they will be almost over slavishly obsequious in their servile flattery. Enter a shop, a hotel foyer or a restaurant that is staffed by Colombians and you are likely to be greeted with one of the following statements.
a la orden – at your service
su merced – your mercy
que le provoca – what takes your fancy?
And in a hotel where you are staying:
como amanecio – How did you sleep?
These phrases are inherited from antiquated almost colonial-era Spanish and of course those of you who read my blog, you’ll understand that this is a theme to which I return frequently, that of the class system here in Colombia.
At first, perhaps upon visiting Colombia you may feel comforted by this flow of exalted politesse and indeed Bogota, the country’s capital is often touted by residents themselves as being the “Athens of South America” for the prevalence of a well-educated citizenry. In fact a taxi driver once proudly told me this fact on the run in from the airport, not before he refused to take me all the way to my destination and round up the meter fare.
But now, after six years here in Colombia living in the country full-time I am growing wary of the almost excessive cordial politesse from those who could be referred to as laboring in the “serving class”. I use this term in the most open and least offensive manner. But, for me this language now comes across as someone who is used to being treated as an inferior or involved in menial tasks.
And so, imagine my wonder and surprise yesterday when I received a telephone call from my bank here in Mompos regarding a bill that I had sent them for the cost of various bank employees in my hotel last month.
“Can I speak to the administrator or manager or someone?”
“You are speaking to Richard the owner, how can I help you?”
“You are the mono?”
I was left almost speechless. Here was a cashier in the bank with which I hold an account asking me directly over the telephone if I was in fact the “white man”. While the English translation for mono is monkey, here in Colombia, Caucasians are referred to as monos.
There is no need to be servile over the phone, merely respectful. And the bank was doing their job in calling me since there was an issue with the bill (part of me believes that they do not want to pay, but this is beside the point of this blog), I feel thoroughly offended that I can be recognized and referred to in this way.
Maybe it’s just the attitude here on the Colombian Caribbean coast? I don’t know. I can imagine Lloyds Bank calling me in London and referring to me by my surname. That the bank here in Mompos, called to inform me of a problem with my bill, my name being firmly visible and readable in the text, and then to be addressed in slang, was perhaps just something that tilted the scale from extreme submissiveness as inherited from the Spanish and reinforcing the feudal nature of life in Mompos, to downright poor manners.
I remain shocked. Am I wrong or just overreacting?