Jamaica Magazine

Exploring Jamaican Culture – An American Retiree in Jamaica

Jamaican culture is quite different from the American culture I lived in most of my life.  It would be impossible for me to discuss all of them in one article.  My intent is to show the differences without being too critical.  Please keep in mind that I love Jamaica and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.  Most tourists see the Jamaicans in a completely different light than what exists beyond the resort walls because of the shine and polish expected of the staff by the hotel management. 

The use or non-use of the telephone is a good starting place.  I’m sure the vast majority of Jamaicans have at least one cell phone and as many as three, that’s one for each of the three cell phone providers on the island.  Why a phone for each company?  To simply save money is the answer.  It’s cheaper to call within the provider’s network than to call the other networks.  With all these phones on the island, they don’t seem to be used in wild abandonment.  The reason is simple.  No credit!  Primarily all phones are pre-paid thus causing people to check their credit balance before making a call.  This may be similar to what is happening today in the U.S.  Cell phones weren’t as popular when I left New England as they are today so I can’t accurately state what is happening now.  What that means to me in Jamaica is when I get a call from a Jamaican I am frequently asked to call them back because of no or low credit.  Some people will text a message instead of calling because it costs less than a call.  No matter how important their call is to me, I am the one who bears the expense which isn’t really a problem to me only an inconvenience.

Then there are those people in businesses who say they will call you back but never do.  Okay so sometimes people get busy and forget.  I can understand that.  Or maybe they don’t have any credit!  The big issue is with companies not returning or following up with phone calls.  Not too long ago I got an estimate for a project in the house I am overseeing.  The quote was for over 1,000,000,000 Jamaican dollars.  You would think the salesman would be keeping in constant contact with me in an effort to secure this bid but there hadn’t been one attempt to contact me.  Subsequently, the job went to another company.  This is just one example but there are countless others with perhaps not as much at stake but nevertheless phone calls are not returned. 

Next we have the Jamaican worker.  It doesn’t matter what profession the person is in as many of these workers are frequently late for work.  It is not only the self-employed person, like a plumber or carpenter who answers only to themselves, but for general businesses as well.  My post office has been ten minutes late opening on several occasions.  My dentist was nearly an hour late for his first appointment of the day with me.  I have a friend who owns a business where some of the employees not only arrive late but then go for breakfast as soon as they arrive.  Needless to say that got old fast.  A welder fabricating a spiral staircase for me was as much as three hours late even though on one occasion he promised to be on time.  It didn’t happen even though he was from the same small community as the house he was working on.  

Then there is the person who doesn’t show up, period.  I’m talking about an agreed upon appointment with personal business who doesn’t even call to say they aren’t coming or are going to be late.  One such incident happened twice in a row by the same person and I haven’t heard from him since.  The worst case was a luncheon date at my house where I prepared a special meal for an upper management person from the local resort.  After calling him twice to see when I should expect him, he stopped answering his phone.  When he finally showed up several hours later, he said he ran into a friend and had a couple of drinks with him.  It didn’t even bother him that a lot of work went into preparing the meal made especially for him.  

Lastly, there are the functions such as dinner parties, funerals, or other gatherings that have a specific time announced for it to begin.  As a punctual American, I would be at all these places on or before the expected starting time.  I was told once that if I am invited to something it is expected I will arrive at least thirty minutes late.  I went to a party on time once only to have arrived an hour and a half early.  The hostess was shocked at my time of arrival and stuck my wife and me at a table out of the way so she could prepare for the other guests who arrived about an hour late.  Never have I been to a funeral that started on time.  The church was probably ready but they had to wait for all the people or special guests to show up.  I had a pastor once who used to wait for the majority of the worshippers to arrive before starting the service.  That is until the service was extending into the early afternoon hours.  It was later announced that services would start on time regardless of how many parishioners were present.  Did this change the time the late comers arrived?  Certainly not immediately but eventually most of the congregation arrived within a respectable time so as not to miss too much of the service. 

In many cases most of these situations would not have happened in the U.S., at least not in my experience.  Jamaicans don’t mean anything by these examples, it’s just part of their culture.  Some of these incidences do still bother me but there isn’t much I can do to change one aspect of the Jamaican culture.  Have I adopted any of these traits?  No, not one single trait!  I am still Mr. Punctual or Mr. Dependable and always will be. That is part of my American culture. Later….

About the author

John Casey