Cultural Differences: Be Diplomatic April 29
Cultural Differences: Come On Everybody Let’s Be Indirect
When you get to Mexico, the definition of honesty will surprise you. It is one of the cultural differences that you should learn about.
The U.S. and Canada
In the US and Canada we value honesty. It is important to be honest in relationships at work, with family, and with friends. When we feel that people are honest with us, we trust them and feel comfortable interacting with them.
When we detect that someone is being dishonest with us our “bullshit” meter goes on, we get an icky feeling in the pit of our stomachs and we end the interaction.
Additionally, the phrase “beating around the bush” has a negative connotation. When someone starts to talk around something, without getting to the point, we start to feel uncomfortable and wonder, “why don’t they just get to the point?”
The thing we never stop to think about is that most of us share a common definition of “straight talk”; of what honesty means, what honesty sounds like.
In Mexico a lot of what we consider honesty, they consider blunt, rude, and down-right abrasive. Mexicans feel attacked by our straight talk. It is always important to find some diplomatic way of putting things.
For a North American, this is one of the cultural differences that requires a lot of effort. First of all, sometimes it’s just plain exhausting to be so round about.
Second of all, sometimes we don’t know what set of words would be diplomatic. All human beings learn–through exposure to others, the variety of ways that things are said. When you first arrive in Mexico, you won’t have this cultural background knowledge and your diplomatic phrase library will be quite limited.
Thirdly, and for me, most difficultly, sometimes what is gentle and diplomatic in Mexico would be defined as manipulative back home.
For example, the other day we were eating indoors at a fast food restaurant. There was a huge crowd of people, and all of the tables were full. We were half way through our burgers when some guy appeared in the crowd with a cigarette in his left hand! (unfortunately, this is not uncommon in Cuernavaca.)
Normally, I move myself away from cigarette smoke, because it would be rude to ask Mexicans to take their smoke elsewhere, but this time I decided not to take it. We were inside and there was nowhere for me to go.
I called out to him and said, “Favor de no fumar adentro,” loosely translated, this is “Please don’t smoke inside,” which was pretty direct, but I did use a polite phrase for requesting an action. (The phrase “Favor de” is now in my diplomatic phrases library.)
He took it pretty well and made the “give me a second” gesture (Holding the thumb and forefinger about a 1/2 centimeter apart in a pinching gesture) and skedaddled pretty quickly.
Later, my husband told me that it would be even better to say, “Disculpe señor/señorita el humo de cigarro me hace daño.” (Excuse me sir/ma’am. Cigarette smoke hurts me.) Note that this request is so indirect, it’s actually not even a request!
I Get Maaaad!
I don’t know about you, but back in the US, I hate that stuff. I consider it manipulative, because the other person is supposed to figure out what you want and do it!
So here I am, in my house in Cuernavaca, practicing a manipulative little phrase in the name of cultural differences. I don’t want to forget how to say it nicely next time I am in a similar situation.
The Big Picture
Try to get over the discomfort of doing something that doesn’t fit in with your personal/cultural definition of what is right. There is nothing that naturally makes “your way” better than “their way.” Chalk it up to cultural differences. By being flexible you will develop better relationships with others.
A not so obvious advantage of learning to do things “their way” is that you will recognize other people’s polite words for what they are.
For example, one of my in-laws is the queen of the non-request. She says all these things that I have to figure out what she wants, then do it. If I use my own cultural perspective, I feel manipulated and it drives me nuts. If I use what I’ve learned while in Mexico, I can recognize her words as an effort to be polite. …And I don’t go nuts. (That’s the real reward, you know. Not being mad at people all the time.)
RULES for dealing with the cultural differences in situations that require diplomacy:
Rule #1: Try to find a nice way to say everything.
Rule #2: Be indirect.
Rule #3: Listen a lot. You learn the cultural differences this way.
Rule #4: Ask a friend for suggestions on how to say things. I have a Mexican friend who has traveled extensively throughout the world, including in the US and Canada. She helps me handle all kinds of cultural differences. Often I go to her and explain a situation. She tries to think of phrases that I can add to my diplomatic phrase library for that particular situation.
Rule #5: If you are feeling put-out remember, your way is not the only way. You are in Mexico now.