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By Arienne Kenlan There are many Mexicans who speak English very well, thus Americans often don’t realize that there are major differences between the two cultures. McDonald’s and Walmart are seen in lots of Mexican towns, but that doesn’t mean that Mexicans think the same way that North Americans think. It can be very helpful to note some of the important differences in order to avoid misunderstandings. Let’s start with the term “Americans.”Mexicans may be a little offended when they hear the term used for people from the United States. After all, Mexico is in the Americas too. “North American” is the acceptable designation for someone from the United States or Canada. Gringo, which used to be derogatory, but is now commonly used, is the term used for any foreigner.Cultural differences are important. The following are only some of the crucial ones, and understanding them will increase your chance of having an easier transition.The Mexican concept of time is completely different from that of the foreigner. The frequently used “Mañana” means tomorrow, but whether it is really tomorrow, or next week, or even never, is open to interpretation. “Two o’clock” to a service provider can mean 1:00, 5:00, or in a couple of days. I once made an agreement with an electrician to come at 3 on Wednesday. It was Monday, so I assumed the day and time were clear. Never assume! Wednesday came, but no electrician. The following week, my doorbell rang, and there stood the electrician, pleasant as could be, ready for work! Directions can be difficult to follow. Mexicans are gracious, kind, friendly people who are always willing to help. Thus, if you ask for directions, it is rare that they will say they don’t know, but will do their best to explain the way, even if the instructions are vague and incorrect. Street signs seem to be an unnecessary luxury and asking for a specific address can be an exercise in futility. Cheers for the GPS. Invitations. If you invite a Mexican to a party or an event, he or she will smile, nod, perhaps say “si”, knowing full well that they can’t come. It’s not that they want to mislead, they simply do not want to disappoint you. If a gringo is invited to an event, Mexicans will not take offense if you do the same. Actually they are happy with your good intentions. A Six-pack, pastry, or a nice fruit plate, or a bottle of good tequila is more appreciated gift to the host or hostess than a good bottle of wine. Don’t come on time.I once had a Thanksgiving “Mixer” dinner and invited my Mexican and American friends. Everyone was supposed to come at 3:00. Of course, the Americans showed up at 3, and after waiting for a “respectable” time, we hit the turkey. At 5:00, they were ready to leave but as they opened the gate, there stood the Mexicans, ready to enjoy the special occasion! So we had round two and I learned an important lesson. Mexicans like to arrive about 2 hours after the start time; never “on time”. It’s a good idea to modify your invitation time if you expect an intercultural event. As for the end of the event, everyone knows Mexicans love to party. Mexican parties only begin around 11 pm and can go all night, music blaring until the wee hours of the morning. Now when I invite my Mexican friends I tell them before they come what time I expect it to end. It’s not the Mexican way, but I am forgiven as I’m a Gringa and a little older.The word “No” is considered rude or ungracious, as is criticism. It is extremely rare to hear a Mexican say “no” or “I don’t know”. Perhaps it is their fear of appearing ignorant, or rude, but getting a straight answer can be a challenge and a little frustrating.Mexicans will never criticize you. Your terrible Spanish will be appreciated and may even serve to form a bond. Mexicans try very hard to speak English in order to help and communicate with the foreigners Do you realize that English is their second or third language while most Americans speak only one foreign language, English. It’s nice to thank them or compliment them for their English.When speaking with a Mexican, it is important to speak slowly and avoid complicated words or slang. A lot of misunderstanding occurs when Mexicans say “You can’t”. Unfortunately, they do not pronounce the t at the end, so one never knows if it is “can” or “cannot”. Always verify whether something is permissible by asking “Did you say can or can not” to avoid potentially serious errors.Business in Mexico (Negocios) differs significantly from the way it is conducted in North America. There are notable differences with business philosophy, ethics, social etiquette, and values. Of course, these are generalizations and there are many exceptions. The importance of business to Americans is foremost. When meeting a person in the States, one usually shakes hands and is more formal than Mexicans. Business is ranked above family and social for many Americans, and the first question is often, “What do you do?”.Americans believe that “My word is my bond” and a handshake deal should be binding. Americans tend to be more trusting than Mexicans. Americans are frank and open, whereas Mexicans are reserved and it may be difficult to know what they really think. Agreements in Mexico are more “fluid”, and subject to change. It seems that Americans are quick to sue and often rely on the courts to settle disputes, whereas Mexicans usually don’t put a lot of faith in their lawyers to settle differences. As Abraham Lincoln said, “…Avoid litigation at all cost”. In Mexico, however, the family is the most important in his life. It’s surprising how often distant relatives are still in contact. Grown children usually remain at home with their parents until they marry. Friends and social life follow in importance to the family, and business comes last. Although this hierarchy is changing and slowly going the way of the wide brimmed Mexican sombrero, however, the cultural differences are quite apparent.Social etiquette in business is extremely important and quite different from the North American style. Introductions are with the first name, usually not “Mr” or” Mrs.” Hugs and pats on the back are normal for men, and a kiss on the cheek is always given to friends and considered proper and normal. In America, one uses “Dr.” when addressing a medical doctor. In Mexico, informality is a way of life, and the use of the first name is common. The term of respect is Licenciado for an attorney or professional, or Maestra for a teacher.During my early days in Cabo, I rushed into an office and told the secretaries I needed something done right away. I couldn’t understand why they looked at me in a very unfriendly way. Later I learned that it is very rude to leap into business demands without first inquiring about their family, health and spending some time with other small talk before getting serious. Americans are more impatient than Mexicans. Waiting at a counter until social conversation is concluded between employees is par for the course. Interruptions are common while attempting to talk or conduct business with an employee, and these must be taken in stride. Impatience will get you nowhere in Mexico. The American who loses his temper will not receive service. The Mexican will act as if he or she cannot understand anything, even if they speak perfect English! Soon I learned that business comes after social greetings and small talk, which could last a long while. Once, I invited a group of Mexican doctors to an expensive business lunch to finalize a medical equipment deal, finally finished, and I thought it was time to “get down to business.” Instead, as I began to take out the papers to sign, the Mexicans invited an entire band of Mariachis over to the table with their trumpets, guitars, singers, and drums. The noise was deafening and obviously meant as a distraction. At the end of the performance, my clients excused themselves and left smiling, obviously avoiding the decision. Finally, expect that it will take at least three trips to any office to resolve an issue. Mexicans love their paper authorization stamps and being in a position of “authority.” Shouting, demanding, impatience or rudeness are unacceptable in Mexico and will get you nowhere. A smile can be worth its weight in gold. Even with the traffic police!Mexico is a beautiful country, full of cultured, intelligent, kind people. Remember that we are guests in their country and try to appreciate their rich culture and the efforts that they make to welcome us. Above all, respect their way of life and be happy. Enjoy the Mexican sun and fun and….Viva Mexico!
Arienne/Adriana Kenlan started coming to Mexico in the 70’s.She was the former host of Life in Los Cabos on Cabo Mil, Project Health Medical Director, is a professional English Marketing instructor at the California Conexion, and a Business Coach. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org