Cultural Differences: Relationships with Coworkers

Cultural Differences:
Relationships with Coworkers

This Definitely Ain’t Kansas Anymore.

One of the cultural differences that has stood out most to me in dealing with my coworkers has to do with time.

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As an American, when I’m pressed for time I tend to rush around and minimize on little polite niceties. I just started a new position at my school which has increased my stress level 100 fold. I’ve been doing a job by myself that really should have two people to fill it. A side benefit of the job has been an opportunity to learn more about the cultural differences between our two countries. Anyway, I’ve been pressed for time.

My coworkers began to give me stony-faced looks and say less and less to me. I’ve been in Mexico long enough to recognize this as a sign of trouble. No one was short with me. No one confronted me. No one disguised a comment about my behavior as a joke. No one took me aside to ask what was the matter. They just got really quiet. Don’t expect Mexicans to tell you that they have a problem. They won’t. (By the same token you should NEVER scold them.)

I realized that by coming into their offices, requesting what I needed; such as a stapler, or the answer to a question, then leaving, I was cutting off their ability to maintain FAVOR RELATIONSHIPS with me.

The American paradigm that I was using was that they were busy too and that I should take as little of their time as possible. In fact, it would have been rude to stay longer than necessary and bother them. Americans hate to have their time wasted and therefore try not to waste other people’s time. My Mexican coworkers felt used. I came and got what I needed, but they didn’t feel welcome to ask me for something in return.

From the outside this cultural difference seems totally selfish. They won’t do favors if they can’t have one in return! It’s “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Or rather “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine first.” In fact, it’s not selfish, it’s reciprocal as described in Cultural Differences in Friendships and Favor Networks .

I was focused on producing, producing, producing. In my mind they were totally welcome to come into my office and take whatever they wanted. But they did not FEEL welcome to ask me for favors. Without the polite niceties and the time to exchange them, they were left with a very yucky feeling.

An outgrowth of learning this cultural difference is the realization that my coworkers don’t care how hard I work, nor how much I produce. They care how well I RELATE to them and how strong our favor relationships are.

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Cultural Differences: Taboos

Cultural Differences: Sorry, You Can’t Say That

The cultural differences in how we define honesty create differences in the phrases that we use to express ourselves.

The U.S. and Canada

As I explain in another page (cultural differences dictate that often you shouldn’t say what you mean), in the US and Canada we value honesty, but never stop to think about the fact that most of us share a common definition of “straight talk”; of what honesty means, what honesty sounds like. Furthermore, we never stop to think that in other countries, people might not have the same definition as we do.


Over time I have received a large number of comments about this post from people who were very insulted by what they think I meant by it.  They don’t really get it, but that probably means it’s badly written. Still, since the majority of the insulted are Mexican and my target audience is northern North Americans, I’m keeping it.  I still think that what I wrote below is valuable and useful so I’m keeping it up.  Before you read the rest of this post, I apologize for how insulting the text sounds when you read it. What “outsiders” say about “insiders” always sounds horrible. As an example, think about this. Maybe you’ve heard Mexicans talk about how “cold” Canadians and people from the US act? I have. On more than one occasion I heard from some of my Mexican friends when they talked about their extended says in the US and Canada  how cold the people were, how it was impossible to be make real friends, how the parties are terrible, etc. Of course I thought that they were wrong because I KNOW we aren’t “cold”.  I didn’t get all insulted because I know about how cultural differences effect our perceptions of reality, but I still didn’t really believe them. Well, surprise, surprise, after I was adjusted to life in Mexico, I felt the exact same way! Now, I feel all weird and disconnected when I’m in Canadian and American social situations where people don’t say goodbye, don’t make eye contact, don’t stop and shake hands or do a kiss on the cheek, etc. I think to myself, “Well how cold.”

Of course, if I were to write this up on a page, explaining to Mexicans that northern North Americans just don’t expect to connect, that they don’t seem to know how to break the ice with each other, not to take it personally, etc, etc. I would have people from Canada and the US writing all sorts of angry comments on my post.

Please just bear with me and try not to take the following text personally.  I’m just trying to explain to people from my cultural background what they need to know when they first live or retire in Mexico so they don’t end up saying the wrong thing and making others feel bad.


In Mexico a lot of what we consider honesty, they consider blunt, rude, and down-right abrasive. Mexicans feel attacked by our straight talk.

I Don’t Know

Mexicans don’t really like it when I say, “I don’t know.” They feel betrayed because saying “I don’t know” isn’t being honest (as you might think if you are from the United States or Canada); it’s ignoring their obvious need for an answer. It’s completely unsupportive and rude.

When faced with a question to which they don’t know the answer, many Mexicans invent an answer in order to be polite.

You need to know this cultural difference for two reasons. Reason #1 is so that you can find a very indirect and diplomatic way to say “I don’t know.”

Remember that the person who asked you a question has a need for an answer and is, for the moment, in a vulnerable position. Treat them gently. Try to find a way to help them. Say something like, “Let me find out” or “Maybe you could ask (person X).” Add on something about how you would very much like to help them, but that are sure that someone else could do a much better job.  This is particularly important for those of us for whom Spanish is our second language.  When one is speaking a language in which their proficiency is limited, there is a tendency to not use the “extra” phrases that make what we say come out in a polite way.

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Reason #2 is so that you can learn to recognize polite answers given by people who haven’t a clue in you know where and real answers. Because Mexicans WILL NOT say “I don’t know” (nor will they say, “I can’t understand the crazy way you just said that in something that approximates Spanish”) they will avoid being rude by MAKING SOMETHING UP. The good thing is that with time you will learn to tell when they are making something up and when they actually know.

The main clue is that when they are making something up, they tend to be very vague. It’s hard to describe how to tell. Possibly, there is some subtle body language that goes along with this. I can’t really explain it to you, but with time you too will be able to tell the difference.

When you suspect that someone is avoiding those three (well, in Spanish they are two) terrible words, the best course of action is to go and ask someone else. Sometimes you need to ask three people and sort of take the average of what they say.


Another honest word that you are not allowed to use in Mexico is “no.” It is a word that I miss a lot (sigh). See cultural differences in friendships for more details about why “no” is such a bad word in Mexico.

Since saying “no” is a no-no in Mexico people rarely use this word. Instead people just say “yes,” albeit more vaguely.

“How can this be?” you ask. Let me tell you, it can be a real shocker when you first live or retire in Mexico. The real damage comes in when you, as a person from a country where “no” is an acceptable response, use the poisonous little word. I’ve committed this cultural no-no many a time and, let me tell you, people’s faces fall. They feel terrible when you tell them “no.”

So, you quickly learn that you are obligated to say “yes”—even when you don’t mean it. At first you will probably feel like you are lying, but if you know how to say “no” like a Mexican (that is to not say no at all) it will become much more comfortable for you. When interacting with others tune in to when they are being vague and take note of the hedge words they use. By observing others you can build a “no saying” dictionary that will allow you to maintain good relationships with friends and acquaintances and yet remain true to your own cultural values of not lying to people.

When you are in a situation in which you want to say “no,” STOP YOURSELF. Try to say “yes” first, then add something that keeps things very vague. If saying “yes” feels too much like you are lying right to someone’s face then just give lots of excuses and say “thank you” over and over. Try to use your dictionary of hedge words that you pick up from observing others.

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Cultural Differences: Loaning

Cultural Differences in Loaning Things:
Live or Retire in Mexico AND Keep Your Belongings

Why does everyone keep my stuff? Can’t people just share without taking things?

Before you live or retire in Mexico, if you learn the nuances of loaning things you will give the correct signals and have a greater likelihood of receiving your things back. When I first lived in Mexico, I felt trapped into being more generous than I wanted to be. What took me a couple YEARS to figure out is that the cultural signals that indicate the flexibility with which you are loaning something are very different.

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Just as back home, there are folks who are more likely to return things than others. In Mexico you have to judge these people pretty much the way you would back in the U.S. and Canada. You know how much you trust the person, how understanding they are, how often you see them, etc. Unlike back in the US and Canada, untrustworthy people will push you to loan them things.

If you have something that you really don’t want to loan to anyone, don’t let them even know you have it. Because of the taboo on saying “no” you could find yourself in a real pinch if someone asks you to borrow something from which you just cannot be separated. Feelings can be badly bruised if you say “no” outright.


Once, the daughter of a trusted person asked me if she could borrow my English dictionary. In seconds the following thoughts flashed through my mind: I thought she would want to take it to school to use during her English class and I imagined the pressures that would be placed on her to let others use it and how easy it would be for someone to take it from her. I thought of how much it would cost in pesos to replace it and how it would have to be sent to me from the US.

I thought “no.”

I said, “no.”

The poor dear’s face fell and there was this awkward silence. I had definitely said the wrong thing. She felt terrible. I felt terrible. Then, I tried to recuperate by saying that she could use it at my house any time she wanted, but it was too late. The damage was done.


When you retire in Mexico, you don’t want to insult your new friends and neighbors, so here’s what you can do:


If you are definitely not going to loan something, you may still want to give a vague yes answer, but avoid setting any specifics. Then when it comes time to loan the item, don’t be home, have your door closed and pretend you are taking a nap, ask the person to come back for it later because you are going to use it that very night to do such-and-such, yadda yadda yadda. Use whatever you can come up with. This is called “poniendo peros” in Spanish, which means “giving buts.” It is the tried and true system of saying yes, but creating so many blocks that the other person either tires of asking or realizes you don’t really want to share. It works well, but don’t overuse it. You will be labeled as selfish and the dreaded punishment is being “talked about,” which leaves you outside of the reciprocity system.


Since you have to say “yes” at least sometimes, you need to know phrases that clearly tell the other person that you want the item back. One of these phrases is, “te lo encargo mucho.” This means “I’m really trusting you with this.” It’s a phrase that is said in situations where we don’t need a phrase in Canada and the U.S. I use it often in the office for loaning things like the only roll of tape, the good scissors, etc. to my coworkers.

Since up north people generally bring back items that you have loaned to them right after they finish using them, I didn’t know that I needed to say anything. In Mexico, if you don’t say anything, it looks like you don’t care if you get the item back, so people just leave it lying around wherever when they finish using it. Here you have to at least glance at the person and, as you are placing the item into their hand, say the magic phrase in a quiet, but serious tone. It works wonders and for me spelled relief from living without any office supplies.


Another magic phrase that you need to know when you live or retire in Mexico is “give it back to me later” or, in Spanish, “Despues me lo das.” This one clarifies the fact that you are in fact LOANING something and not GIVING it to them. This one gives the loanee some time to use the item, but clearly establishes that they are, in fact, borrowing the item. Again, tell them this in the moment that you are giving it to them, but use a casual, friendly tone of voice. If you don’t remind them that they are borrowing something, they may never bring it back.


I used to try asking the person when they would give it back, which must have been a successful strategy back home in the Pacific Northwest, but only resulted in confusion and suspicious looks from the borrower. Don’t bother with that strategy.

Using the above strategies and phrases will greatly reduce friction with your new friends and neighbors and make the transition easier when you live or retire in Mexico.

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