Cultural Differences: Be Diplomatic

Cultural Differences: Come On Everybody Let’s Be Indirect
…er…
Be Diplomatic

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

Did you know that Mexicans often say things that we consider “lies?”
The author of this website has prepared an e-book with a funny section about cultural differences and honesty.
e-book

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.

MEXICO

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.

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10 comments

  1. Edith Feb 29

    This is interesting reading.

    I have been an expatriate for many years (not in Mexico) and have been known to be blunt (“honest”) but where I grew up in the States, it was considered rude behavior. That is, some of the things you point out as being “okay” where you come from in the US would be considered rude where I come from. For example, I would say, “Would you mind smoking someplace else, since the cigarette smoke bothers me.” I don’t find that to be deceptive. After all, the cigarette smoke IS bothering me or else I would not be complaining about it. That is, that’s what I would have said if I had the nerve to actually say something to someone. Most people get the idea when I start to cough and wheeze and fan the smoke away. 🙂

    What Americans consider as straightforward and honest is in many cultures considered rude and not surprisingly so. As for American honesty in general….hmmm. Although I am sure that many Americans THINK they are honest, I have seen so many cases of dishonest behavior in the US that I could fill several pages with it.

    My general impression of first-time expatriates, as I call them (people who are living in their first country abroad), is that they go abroad with what they THINK Americans are like, and then tend to criticize the other culture from that viewpoint for not doing things “right”. This is not just on the part of Americans. I think that people who expatriate to any country often see their and their fellow countrymen’s behavior as being a “standard” and this is only natural. This is not really a criticism, as much as it is an observation on my part. Right now I live in a country in Europe and I have heard so many strange things from people here who have visited the US–most of them misperceptions about behavior. Once a person told me about a man who had a bottle of liquor in a paper bag at a beach with a sign showing “no liquor”. She then proceeded to tell me that this is was a prime example of American double standards–say one thing and do something else. My reply: “No, this is an example of a man who is breaking the law and trying to get away with it.” I don’t think she would have accused her own countrymen of having a double standard in the same situation, so it puzzled me as to why she did that about Americans.

    Aside from that, I find this site to be interesting reading since I will be going to Mexico to house-sit in May and June, so thanks for the tips.

  2. Julia Taylor Feb 29

    Edith,

    Your comments are so true. When anyone is in a new culture they always assume that their own perspective is the “normal” one. It’s just part of culture shock. Also, sometimes it’s embarrassing to see my fellow Americans traveling in Mexico!

    I too am considered blunt in my home area. Additionally, where I’m from people don’t smoke inside, so from my experience the guy was being very rude.

    I just want people to think about this topic and to practice being polite in Mexico.

    Enjoy house sitting. Write back after you’ve been in Mexico and let us know how you experienced being diplomatic in Mexico.

    Julia

  3. Triana Nov 20

    I found this website right when I needed it!!!!!! This is great, great, great! It was the coin I’ve been waiting to have drop after four and a half years of living in this wonderful country of Mexico!

  4. Julia Taylor Nov 20

    Triana,
    Thanks! I’m so happy you needed this information and found it. I’m also curious what it was that was “on your mind” you for 4 years?
    Julia

  5. Colin Gautrey Jul 2

    I find this subject so fascinating. Your comments are so perceptive – frankly, we are all thinking the rest of the world should be just like us – maturity moderates that but it is still our deep first reaction. Careful observation is needed to bring success inter culturally. I really liked your clear examples too!
    It is interesting, that in the UK we keep referring to “treat others as you like to be treated” however as your post demonstrates, this clearly doesn’t work. It should be “treat others as they like to be treated” or suffer the consequences!

  6. Julia Taylor Jul 3

    Thanks for getting my point. It is true that we often have to treat others as they prefer. Funny how that phrase, which I’ve heard as “do unto others as you would have done unto you” has to change in a multi-cultural setting. Hmmmm.

  7. Steve Luis Sep 29

    Julia,

    Fantastic website and astute insights! I´m in roughly the same situation as you, having now lived in Baja for roughly 8 years. I am in the precarious situation of being what feels like, and may be the case at times, the only full time american my age living in a city of 200,000. So at times yes one feels like a fish out of water, despite having become fluent in the language and well versed in the culture.

    One emotion I notice living here is the inability to ¨connect¨ to people in the same way I recall doing so in the states. The type of stimulating conversation where you relate to the person you´re speaking with and really connect.. endorphins fired off etc, you know what I mean? That is what I miss most from back home.

    I attribute it to two things.

    1) Lack of shared background (national history, culture, pop culture, tv programming, primary education, etc). Basically conversation fodder to find common ground and empathy.

    2) While I have a firm grasp on the language, it is a second language and although I’ve been speaking it more than my primary language for 8 years, i feel like it´s the cerebral equivalent of software rather than firmware. As if there is and always will be a milisecond from when I hear something and when it sets in, where as in english it´s instantaneous comprehension.

    What are your thoughts on this Julia, can you relate?

  8. Julia Taylor Sep 30

    Steve Luis,

    Yes, I can relate. It’s a feeling that is hard to put into words and I think you’ve done a better job than I have!

    Julia C Taylor

  9. tom arnall Jun 27

    Julia,

    Thanks very much for yr book. Lots of valuable stuff. Have you thought of doing a book that is completely ‘autobiographical’ of yr adventures in Mexico, with lots and lots of anecdotes?

    I was especially interested in yr account of the traffic accident incident. I am curious about something, as follows:

    BACKGROUND. I have found an easy way to deal with cops who stop you for bogus traffic infractions for the purpose of collecting a bribe. The magic words are, “Yo quiero hablar con un magistrado.” In the first three months of my stay in Mexico, I was stopped four times for blatantly false reasons. (Two bozos claimed that car-top carriers are illegal in Rosarito, BC!). In each case the magic words made them quickly lose interest in me. After the fourth attempt, the cops just gave up. What puzzles me is that ALL of the gringos i’ve talked to in the Ensenada area (my home at the moment) had no idea of the option, instead trusting to all kinds of ‘clever tactics’ in dealing with the cops. E.g., one friend just pays the copy whatever the cop says is the fine. Best I can make out, a cop really has no legal power over you except to haul yr butt before a magistrate until the magistrate authorizes further action. But unless you insist on talking to a magistrate, a cop will haul yr butt directly to jail if he thinks that is appropriate, without telling you of yr right to an immediate magistrate hearing. Here in Ensenada every police station has a magistrate on duty 24/7. Informed Mexican friends tell me that this is the case throughout Mexico, tho’ once in San Felipe a cop denied my request, saying that the magistrate was in Mexicali. Later my host in San Felipe told me that the cop had lied to me and that indeed there was a magistrate at the station where the cop brought me to pay the fine. (My host has a brother-in-law on the San Felipe force. Never asked the host btw what i shd have done when the cop refused my request for a hearing. Duh.) In Ensenada the magistrate will usually reduce a traffic fine.

    MY QUESTION. Do you have a way of finding out whether in yr area the magistrate option wd apply when the cops want to detain you because of possible liability in an accident?

    Regards,

    tom

  10. Julia Taylor Jul 9

    Tom,

    Thank you for your comment. I can’t confirm whether or not your method would work in a situation in which you’d had an accident because I doubt that any answer I would “hit the ground” the same way in a real-life situation.

    I’m glad you found a way to avoid paying bribes — and now it seems that you are free from police harassment because they leave you alone now. As long as we don’t push it or get into a confrontation or a dangerous situation, it’s always good to try to avoid paying the bribes. It’s also important not to act self-righteous about it, too. I’m sure you are striking that middle ground.

    Thanks again for your comment. It’s good food for thought up here.

    Regards, Julia C Taylor

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