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.

Explanation…

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.

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.

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.

cover page: Mexico: The Trick is Living HereNeed to know more about cultural differences in diplomacy?
Click here to see a description of an e-book prepared by the author of this website.

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.

No

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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19 comments

  1. Andres Sep 29

    I had never noticed! might be true… but you can say “I don’t know” and then explain why you don’t know…like… “i don’t know, I wasn’t there/ I wasn’t paying attention and so on…
    🙂

  2. Julia Taylor Sep 30

    Andres,

    Right on.

    Regards, Julia

  3. Francisca A. nava Nov 30

    Excuse me but um I am a Mexican and(Yes I speak perfect english as well as spanish) it is not true that us Mexicans think that being honest is rude or that the word no is a big no-no, as well as that the phrase “I don’t know” is an unacceptable answer. “Treat them gently there in a vunerable position”.. that is … I feel offended por ustedes. Quien ahia escrito esto nunca a conocido a un mexicano. =(

  4. Julia Taylor Dec 1

    Francisca,

    Thank you for your post… I guess. I feel the need to explain that this page is directed at people from the US and Canada, not Mexicans. Of course, Mexicans tell each other “no” and “I don’t know” every day. There are differences in HOW we express those ideas, and that is what I am trying to explain to non-Mexicans.

    I appologize 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 can act? I have. First I heard that from some of my Mexican friends when they talked about extended says in the US and Canada (and of course I thought that they were wrong because I KNOW we aren’t “cold”). Well, surprise, surprise, after I was adjusted to life in Mexico, I felt the 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 eachother, not to take it personally, etc, etc. I would have people from Canada and the US writing all sorts of angy comments on my post.

    …so, just let me explain to people from my cultural background in a way that they will understand and spare yourself the indignation.

    Kindest Regards,

    Julia C Taylor

  5. Daniel Gonzalez Feb 16

    I’m hispanic and this s h it is not true who ever wrote this doesn’t know, and is being a racist.

  6. Daniel Gonzalez Feb 16

    Honestly I don’t think this is true, im hispanic from mexican parents and I guarantee only half of this is true.please stop being racist.

  7. Sergio Jun 3

    I wouldnt agree much with what is said here..

  8. Tlehuitzitzinahuak Jun 11

    Well I am mexican, and I live in the south of México, Morelos.
    And this is kind of true but… just in certain places in México, just like me Mexico city. but at least in the whole south of México is not, and if you don’t say something you mean. people will inmiediatly know you’re a lier, but it is true that the way to pronounce the answer it’s important. you can always say ”no” or ” I don’t know” but it sounds too simple to say it like that. we don’t talk like that =) we have much more vocabulary to use.
    Did you know that that’s the reason why we mexican southers dislike at all people from Mexico city? cause they don’t make eye contact when they talk to you, cause they answer as short as a ”No” or ”I don’t know” and makes us feel we actually bother them by asking something. Anyway you get to know that the reason we are like that (at least in the south) it’s cause we are aducated with a nahuatl education, it might be that not everybody speaks ”Nahuatl” but we do have its culture. I personally speak nahuatl, it’s my mother language, and i can surely tell you that, because of the way nahuatl is spoken and because of the influence it has in the ”modern mexican way of speaking” it’s the reason why always try to be as helpfull and polite as we can… there used to be this great mexica leader called ”Itzkoatl” and he used to say that the way we nahuas should to be to others it was ruled by a simple sentence ”Xekchihua ipampa tle yaha tlaka ikchihua nopampa” -Do-treath others how you would like to be treathed-
    but if you simply don’t know you can always say I don’t know, but i strongly suggest to add up ” I am sorry but I don’t know” and when the answer it’s negative always change your voice to a sweeter tone. =)
    People who speaks that short, for us (Morelos,Guerrero,Chiapas, Oaxaca, Tabasco, Puebla) it’s cause they are really uneducated. Remember that all of these things change depends of the place where you are. not because we are named under the same nationality ”Mexicano” we are the same… we are actually 65 different cultures living in méxico, and excluding Monterrey, D.F. and Guadalajara. eventhough we might not be dressing the typical outfits or speaking our mother language, we are do influenced by our culture.
    It’s like if you go to places like Yucatan or Q. Roo. you gotta speak much sweeter to them cause if you speak by the way we speak in Morelos, it sounds kind of too aggresive. or in the other hand you can get more in the north, like in Aguascalientes or Sinaloa, and if you keep speaking the same way as we do in Morelos it sounds simply dumb, you can do speak more direct and harder to them in the north.
    As i said before it’s a mistake to called everybody living here as ”mexicans” cause many would already believe that because of being everybody mexicans, we do have the same way of thinking (generally speaking) and it’s not true. depends of your culture.

  9. Julia Taylor Jun 12

    Tlehuitzitzinahuak,

    Thank you for adding your comments. Communication is often in the finer nuances we learn from our communities — and each one is unique.

    Regards, Julia C Taylor

  10. Riicoo Dec 9

    RACIST! I FEEL DEEPLY OFFENDED BY THIS AND CRYED ME SELF TO SLEEP BECAUSE OF YOUR POST! YOU MAKE US OUT TO BE SOME KIND OF PATHETIC RACE THAT NEEDS THE “MORE SUPERIOR” AMERICANS FOR LOOKING AFTER US! I AM DEEPLY MORTIFIED AND DISGUTED. GET OUT OF THE COUNTRY!

  11. Julia Taylor Dec 9

    Riicoo,

    I’m not a racist so all I can do is apologize, but I’m sure that won’t fix it.

    Anyway: I’m sorry.

    Regards,

    Julia C Taylor

  12. Flippyman Feb 11

    Oh God, I’m Mexican and I have to say that there is a lot of truth in what you said.

    My advise is to be specially wary of answers of people who will give you a service. They will often say “yes, I can” or “yes, I know (how to do something)” even when they can’t or don’t just to get the sale.

    Another variation is “it’ll cost $1,000” when they know it’ll end up costing $1,500 or more.

    And, of course, always call to check if something is ready because it seldom will be ready by the time they told you it would be ready.

    My recommendation is to get someone you trust to recommend you to a service man. That was not a mistake. I don’t mean to ask Pedro to tell you the number of his plumber. I mean to ask Pedro to call his plumber and tell him you’re a good person and if he could give you such service. And remember to reinforce this when you meet the service man (“Hi, I contacted you because Pedro recommended you”). It’s not a guarantee, but it’ll increase your chances of good service and a discount.

    If you’re in the mood for some reading (and your Spanisho is goodo enougho), you can read an article I wrote about this behavior, which I call “the syndrome of Tuesday at 5 o’clock”.

    http://filosofiaseneltrafico.wordpress.com/2010/04/25/el-martes-a-las-5/

  13. Julia Taylor Feb 11

    Flippyman,

    I loved your blog post! I was laughing all of the way through. Also, your advice is very good.

    Thank you.

    Julia C Taylor

  14. Sandra Jun 9

    Being a Canadian married to a Mexican and living in Mexico I love this site! So much of this is exactly true. Our perception of truth is totally different. My husband and I often argue about it. Whether he has lied to me about something, I’ve been rude by telling the truth or I’ve said ‘idont know’ I’d say about 90% of our fights and arguments are about those three topics. Thanks for this site and making me feel not so alone or crazy!

  15. Julia Taylor Jun 10

    You are most welcome. Keep on enjoying those differences! Thanks for your comment.

    Julia C Taylor

  16. Tom Sep 30

    This is the first time I´ve seen this topic discussed so openly in a bicultural public setting. Usually its avoided for PC reasons, so you usually don´t even find it in magazines or webzines. But its real.

    I run a business in mexico and this is a topic I speak a lot about with my partner, who is bilingual bi-cultural, but of primarily US upbringing and parents (that took place in Mexico). This is a mystery even to him, something we spend a good amount of time discussing trying to understand in order to run our business better. Because in business, when speaking with employees, contractors, service providers, etc.. its important to ¨known what you don´t know¨ a.k.a. learn what gaps there are in the knowledge of the person you´re speaking with or your own in order to fill them in with training, best/better practices, troubleshoot, really get to the root of the problem.

    Happens all the time. I as a manager need to get to the bottom of things and its challenging at times due to this cultural feature. And yes I do speak fluent Spanish having lived in mexico for over a decade, although I was brought up in the US.

    Also the previous post is something I can relate to. I am in a relationship as well with a Mexican in mexico, and after several discussions with my significant other and quite a bit of thought I move toward the conclusion that view toward what is truth is inherently different in the two cultures.

    Let me explain. Anglosaxons tend to have an emperical view of truth. They make sure what they say is true, the part they emphasize, is absolutely emprically true. They get through difficult social situations at time via omission, but try to make sure the core of their statement rest on an empirical truth about a verifyable occurence, even if parts are left out that mislead. This is socially acceptable and considered speaking the truth in our culture. Remember, the cornerstone being that the verifyable occurence is accurately represented.

    Anglosaxons have a different take on truth when it comes to feelings, opinions. We feel its OK to misrepresent this and we do it all the time in order to smooth out social situations. We call these things ¨subjective¨ and since nobody can see it but ourselves, since it happens in our head and heart, its fair game.

    I believe, based on experience, that Mexicans view our lying about about opinions and feelings as on the same plane as altering the representation of a verifyable occurence, and if it were to come down to fingerpointing, may be as offensive to some.

    Mexicans may alter the represenation of a verifyable occurence in order to smooth out a social situation, save face for themselves, etc. basically for the same reasons we might misrepresent feelings and opinions. So in a way, our difference in perspective is a matter of degrees, not mountains.

    And then I saw the movie ¨The Invention of the Lie¨ and sure enough, a world was depicted in that movie where everyone says exactly what they are thinking and feeling and 100% honest and truthful on every level. Social situations are awkward, but people get by, and know where everyone stands.

    So a reality can and no doubt does exist in which we Americans are lying scoundrels in comparison. I´m sure there are other cultures where we appear so in comparison, perhaps against the Norwegian culture?

    So anyway, I´m done rambling, but of course everything under the sun is relative.

  17. Julia Taylor Sep 30

    Tom,

    I enjoyed your post. I think you are right about the way people in the U.S. “fudge” on their feelings.

    I’m glad to know that you and your business partner discuss this topic regularly and I’m not the only one. Some readers seem to take my post too literally. I’m just trying my best to look more deeply at the topic. Of course, it’s so relative no one will ever get it “right” but the learning we do along the way is what really matters.

    Julia C Taylor

  18. A Kearney Nov 20

    I enjoyed reading Tom’s post above. His comment made me reflect on how these differences seem to occur because in Mexico all situations seem to be seen as ‘social’, whereas in the US/Canada/Europe or wherever, situations fall into many more categories and our perception of ‘social’ is far more limited. Whilst – in the mind of those from the north – having these categories is useful and can produce outcomes more ‘easily’, it’s actually a rather nice reflection and accomplishment to see yourself as always in a ‘social’ situation. I believe it will soften my tough edges and make me appreciate others more to live in Mexico (although of course at times, my need to ‘get things done’ means I am frustrated with this).

  19. gdfg Mar 4

    I think that all of you are wrong mexico is the greatest place in the world

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