Cultural Differences: Taboos May 5
Cultural Differences: Sorry, You Canâ€™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.Â 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.Â I still think that what I wrote below is valuable and useful so I’m keeping it up.Â Before you read the rest of this post, I apologize for how insulting the text sounds when you read it. What â€œoutsidersâ€ say about â€œinsidersâ€ always sounds horrible. As an example, think about this. Maybe youâ€™ve heard Mexicans talk about how â€œcoldâ€ 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 CanadaÂ 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 arenâ€™t â€œcoldâ€.Â 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 Iâ€™m in Canadian and American social situations where people donâ€™t say goodbye, donâ€™t make eye contact, donâ€™t stop and shake hands or do a kiss on the cheek, etc. I think to myself, â€œWell how cold.â€
Of course, if I were to write this up on a page, explaining to Mexicans that northern North Americans just donâ€™t expect to connect, that they donâ€™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.Â 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 donâ€™t really like it when I say, â€œI donâ€™t know.â€ They feel betrayed because saying â€œI donâ€™t knowâ€ isnâ€™t being honest (as you might think if you are from the United States or Canada); itâ€™s ignoring their obvious need for an answer. Itâ€™s completely unsupportive and rude.
When faced with a question to which they donâ€™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 â€œI donâ€™t know.â€
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, â€œLet me find outâ€ or â€œMaybe you could ask (person X).â€ 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.Â This is particularly important for those of us for whom Spanish is our second language.Â 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.
Reason #2 is so that you can learn to recognize polite answers given by people who havenâ€™t a clue in you know where and real answers. Because Mexicans WILL NOT sayÂ â€œI donâ€™t knowâ€ (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. Itâ€™s hard to describe how to tell. Possibly, there is some subtle body language that goes along with this. I canâ€™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 â€œno.â€ It is a word that I miss a lot (sigh). See cultural differences in friendships for more details about why â€œnoâ€ is such a bad word in Mexico.
Since saying â€œnoâ€ is a no-no in Mexico people rarely use this word. Instead people just say â€œyes,â€ albeit more vaguely.
â€œHow can this be?â€ 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 â€œnoâ€ is an acceptable response, use the poisonous little word. Iâ€™ve committed this cultural no-no many a time and, let me tell you, peopleâ€™s faces fall. They feel terrible when you tell them â€œno.â€
So, you quickly learn that you are obligated to say â€œyesâ€â€”even when you donâ€™t mean it. At first you will probably feel like you are lying, but if you know how to say â€œnoâ€ 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 â€œno sayingâ€ 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 â€œno,â€ STOP YOURSELF. Try to say â€œyesâ€ first, then add something that keeps things very vague. If saying â€œyesâ€ feels too much like you are lying right to someoneâ€™s face then just give lots of excuses and say â€œthank youâ€ over and over. Try to use your dictionary of hedge words that you pick up from observing others.