Mexico V.S. US and Canada: Cultural Differences…

Mexico V.S. US and Canada:
Cultural Differences Are Harder to Get Over Than We Think.

You’re in Mexico now. Cultural differences mean that friendship is full of uncomfortable little surprises. The cultural rules are DIFFERENT, in particular, those that define honesty.

Cultural differences give life a sort of before and after feel when you first come to Mexico. As in: before things worked, now I can’t figure out what I’m doing wrong.

Photo of the cover of Mexico: The Trick is Living Here
Did you know that Mexicans often say things that we would consider “LIES?”
The author of this website has prepared an e-book with a funny section about cultural differences and honesty.

Before

For example, friendships are defined by the giving and receiving of favors. We take turns buying each other lunch. You give me a ride home from work and I help you drop off your car at the mechanic next month. You loan me money, I pay it back when I say I will. I can’t go to your party, so I call you up the night before. I don’t want you to be looking for me, wasting money on food I won’t be able to eat. I know that you’ll understand my absence. Friendship is smooth, effortless, as long as we are honest with each other, right? Wrong. You’re in Mexico now. The cultural rules for friendships are DIFFERENT.

After

Now I have to offer you food if I’m going to eat. If I suggest that we eat out, I have to buy your food. You give me a ride, home, but I don’t have a car. How will I pay you back? You loan me money, but I don’t ever have to pay you back and it would be very rude of you to ask for it. I can’t go to your party, but I don’t dare tell you that. I tell you I’ll be there even if I know I’ll be in Timbuktu. Besides, you have to have tons of food ready because I might just show up with my family of 6: all of them hungry.

At this point, you might be saying, “Ok, so the cultural differences exist. How can I have friendships be part of my life in Mexico?” After all you wouldn’t live or retire in Mexico, if you didn’t want to have Mexican friends. Keep your foot out of your mouth by reading more about how people make friends first in Mexico and some of the cultural differences in how we have friendships.

When you first get here you will be vigorously targeted for favor relationships (as described in the page about friendships). How should you respond? Read about how talking to your neighbors helps you to build a strong future when you live or retire in Mexico .

You may have guessed that the same cultural differences will affect your relationships with coworkers. Keep your foot out of your mouth by reading more about the cultural differences in work relationships .

I mentioned honesty above. How we define honesty causes a lot of friction and frustration between ourselves and our new friends and coworkers. Surprisingly, this cultural difference in how we express honesty affects the right way to make requests . It also means that there are certain things we can’t say. Even the way we loan people our things is different in Mexico. Learn how to avoid asking why does everyone keep my stuff?

As you grow and adapt to the cultural differences you will find yourself changing. Some of these things make funny jokes. Find out what might happen to you after a year or two of living in Mexico by reading You might be becoming Mexican if…

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26 comments

  1. Laura Oct 15

    Julia, I have really enjoyed reading through the information on your website. My family is in a situation similar to yours, and I wish I would have found this site sooner (I’ve been living in Mexico for 1 year). We will possibly be living in Mexico in a more long-term way, and it is so difficult to find information that is geared toward non-independently wealthy expats married to “normal” Mexicans. In fact, I would love more information about a Mexican spouse with little/no specialized education and/or connections finding work in Mexico as well as raising children in Mexico — two topics very near and dear to me! I didn’t notice either of these two topics in the table of contents of your book – or did I overlook them?

    Thank you again for your website – I think it is great!

  2. Julia Taylor Oct 15

    Laura,

    I am SO GLAD you found my site and even more glad that you find it useful! I really wanted people in “our situation” to have this site as a resource and to be in touch with each other. I felt so alone when I first decided/was forced to move to Mexico. You’re right, most guide books and other expats assume you want to move to Mexico and they assume you have money. I’ll never forget listening to one expat wife talking about the hard times when they had to bucket water from the swimming pool to flush their toilette. …When I run out of water, I’m out. There’s no pool.

    As I’ve developed my site and my book I have tried to gear it to people who are retiring in Mexico, too, because there are many more of them who might like to buy the book. I did not cover raising children in Mexico in my book, but I did put in a section about getting their citizenship certs and passports etc. if they are born in Mexico. I just have one article about raising a child in Mexico and you can find that on the articles page of my web site under the section “Expatriate Life.”

    You might find my book useful in that it describes in detail how to live in Mexico on a tight budget. It talks about getting to know neighbors (in a not-rich neighborhood). The whole perspective is from this “disadvantaged” position we found ourselves in.

    My husband has a couple of short sections that he wrote in the book about cultural activities, but there’s not a lot about him in the book. I didn’t want to make the book personal in a way that wasn’t useful to most of my audience. You’d have to read between the lines to find out about living with an undereducated Mexican husband.

    I am an “expert” on the allexperts web site and I’ve answered a few questions for other women in relationships with Mexican men on that site. You could put ‘allexperts Julia Taylor’ into your search engine, then click on “view past answers” and see if any of them are of interest to you.

    Write back. I’d love to hear more from you and share more personal stories about spouses, careers, making friends, having a family…. We don’t have to put it all up here on the comments page, either. You could email me directly.

    Sincerely, Julia Taylor

  3. Kathy Denman Dec 8

    Dear Julia,

    Thank you for this wonderful website. I am feeling much encouraged just reading through all of its pages and links. When I earn a little more money, I am definitely going to buy both books.
    I came here to Ensenada, Mexico from Illinois about a year and two months ago to help an American friend who was living here return to the United States. After I arrived here, a combination of unfortunate circumstances made not only her return with me impossible, but also drained my financial resources so that my return was also impossible. When my financial resources were gone, my “friend” went on to seek help elsewhere. Thus, I have been living here on my own with virtually nothing for most of these 14 months.
    In that time I have discovered that learning the culture is much more difficult than learning the language. In terms of language, I now speak and read Spanish very well, well enough for the phone company, the bank, all the stores, including auto parts and hardware (now becoming part of my necessary Spanish vocabulary), and for church, social gatherings, and interpersonal relationships as well. The more difficult learning for me has been the culture. I live in a colonia in Ensenada in which there are no Americans at all. It is a very working class area in which “Prestame” is a very common request. If I say ‘no’ as you have pointed out, the consequences are isolation and loneliness. I have learned to let go of my “possessiveness” of money in particular (I have so very little of it anyway). I have also learned the reverse – how to let go of my pride and make the same request “prestame” of my neighbors and friends when I need money or food immediately and don’t have it. I have discovered that my neighbors and friends here actually feel more friendship and connection with me when I, too, am able to come to them and say “prestame”. My car is parked on the street and my neighbors “protect” it for me just as you have said. I give rides to people who don’t have a car and they give me food and find me students in return. (I teach music and English and “computacion” (computer skills)to whomever manages to find me or whomever I can find who wants to learn any or all of those things). I have learned that if I go to visit someone I need to always bring something with me (fruit, bread, tortillas, eggs, and soda are always well received and immediately consumed). When I do that, I immediately access the “favor network” you are talking about.
    My circumstances are painfully difficult at times, but I am learning so much and feel so affirmed and encouraged by your web site. You have helped me see that in the middle of the most difficult circumstances of my life that the things I am thinking, feeling, and learning are a normal part of the cultural adjustments I have had to make without much help, and these cultural changes and adaptations are making me a better person and my life experience here better. You have also helped me remember that I am not alone, that I am in the midst of many good persons, of whom you are one, that have experienced and are experiencing the same things. Thank you again for your wonderful website. I can’t wait to buy and read your books.

  4. Julia Taylor Dec 10

    Kathy,
    Thank you for commenting! I’ve gotten some criticism about my treatment of these “culture shock” topics but I’ve insisted on sticking to what I wrote because it’s the truth as I experienced it.

    It’s good to know that not only do you agree, but that more importantly, it helped you to read what I wrote. That is my real goal with my web site. To help others by being honest and “saying” what most people are afraid to say so that we can enjoy ourselves more in Mexico as well as adjust better to our communities. Your comments warmed my heart all day after I read them.

    I’m sorry you are temporarily “stuck” in Mexico and are experiencing financial difficulties. In my own life I always trust that such “difficulties” are guided by Love and as I look back on my own life I can see how I was lead through difficulties to an even better end result than I could have expected prior to the difficulties. I’m sure the same is true for you.

    Be blessed.

    Sincerely, Julia Taylor

  5. William Conklin May 17

    Your site is one of the most interesting that I have found in a long time. I especially enjoyed the cultural differences discussion. We live in a very small town, Mineral de Pozos, that is just emerging from a long period of “sleep”. There are about 20 full time expats, 30 part time and about 3000 non-expats although with a heavy dose of experience in the US.
    We probably spend too much time with other expats as certainly easier as we try to improve our Spanish but try to get involved with the town when ever possible.
    We do find that a buenos dias or buenas tardes goes a long way when accompanied by a smile.Probably the most difficult thing for us is the group biases within such a small town. We weren’t prepared to be caught in between ejido and non-ejido when trying to get help. We are also surprised with the indigenous people bias, in our case against Chichimeca tribes that appears almost official as the policia not much help. Finally, we are comfortable with almost everyone and are amazed when some Mexican friends refuse to associate with others citing class differences.
    We do truly love Mexico and I will certainly use your website for reference, especially if I can remember a few key phrases.

  6. Julia Taylor May 17

    William,
    Thank you so much for your comment. I think it’s interesting that people have actually expressed to you — in words — that class differences are causing them to avoid contact with other people. I am always bothered by that aspect, but have never heard anyone “admit” to it. I find that certain people will be very interested in meeting me, then, once they ask what my husband does, they cool off visibly and immediately. It just makes me sick to my stomach.

    I think the ejido versus non-ejido aspect is interesting. I’ve known people from ejidos (I’m related to some) but, haven’t observed the two sides active in one town. I’d like to know more about that.

    I’m so proud that I can be a reference for you. Keep in touch!

    Regards, Julia

  7. Anto Jun 13

    Mexico has racism and classism.

  8. Julia Taylor Jun 14

    Anto,
    It’s everywhere, darn it! The good thing is that people are talking about it, declaring what it is when they see it, and many people have made huge strides toward getting rid of it. Honesty is the first step, right?
    Regards, Julia

  9. diego Aug 7

    hi Julia T, I diego ,Im mexican, I was reading your webpage, and I agree almost at all, actually I didnt noticed about a lie in your text, just one thing about borrowing money, and it is arround the worldthere are bad person who doesnt care pay , or doesnt want to get back your money, I mean every where you can see that not only in mexico.

    well Im from Queretaro it is a small city in the center of the country at north of mexico city.

    I just want to say it is good web and useful to foreiners
    I know go to diferent country to live is hard because the diferences about behabior, costume thinkings even food can make you crazy sometimes, but is normal.

    but later you can find that you can be one more of them is’nt it?

    I went to canada about 5 months and I know there are difereces between canadian people and usa people.

    but the thing is help each other I mean If my mate is happy I will be happy too.

    also if I can help to make it better just let me know

    bye Diego
    ps sorry if my english is not really good

  10. Julia Taylor Aug 7

    Diego,

    It was so kind of you to write. You’re right about how Culture Shock changes your perspective over time. Canadians and Americans seem so “cold” to me now that I have lived in Mexico for so long — but they are nicer in stores and banks (go figure!). It can take them weeks to reach out and even introduce themselves, then when they think of it, it’s too late because it seems silly by that time.

    You are so kind to offer help. We are really just fine.

    I’ve been to Queretaro. It’s a really nice city.

    Regards, Julia C. Taylor

  11. gabriela Jul 15

    ok soooo…. im mexican and i hear what you saying but… Even if your friends like you a lot and call you comadre you will never ever be one of them and they wont treat you the same way. For us all the people that live on the other side of the border are gringosss!! and they’ll always be. so please dont trust nor believe evetything you read pleople.

  12. lisa morales Aug 10

    I need help with a husband who has been living in Mexico for 3 yrs and cant seem to find his way back home. I lived with my husband for 2yrs in a little town called San Andres, Tlyacapan. I think that you hit a lot of stuff right on the nose. I found it easy to make friends(i am bilingual) so I didnt really have to hard of a time shopping or anything like that. I washed my clothes by hand in the same place i did dishes. I also didnt have enough water at times but when it would rain we would put barrels out and then we would use that water for what we could. I actually loved it down there but my husband thought that my kids needed to come back up here because my son was getting ready to go to school and he didnt think that the schools down where we lived was that good. My house was made of adobo and the ground was dirt and my ceiling was carton. We didnt have a car we took a combi and i shopped in thingis. I guess my point is thank you for making me relize there are more of us out there then i thought. I really appriciate your words.

  13. Julia Taylor Aug 10

    Lisa, Thank you for your note. I’m glad you enjoyed your time in your adobe home in Mexico. Thank you for taking the time to post. It does feel good to know that there are more of out there than we think!

    I hope you can all live together in the future.

    kindest Regards, Julia C Taylor

  14. Juan Aug 31

    I lived in Mexico 27 years….and is ridiculus what you said Mexico is a big country and olso the lenguage is diferent from heach state(32)…the Mexicans are bery praud of they history and allwais se the “gringos”as the invaders…racism is not the right description for them mybe clacism,both to know the true harth you have to be a humble person

  15. Julia Taylor Sep 1

    Juan,

    Thank you for your comment. I think you are right, classism is probably the stronger reality — and people use skin colour to base it on.

    Kindest Regards, Julia C Taylor

  16. Roberto Barnard Baca Oct 29

    Through just surfing about I came across your interesting page and was intrigued with the various anecdotes and commentary running throughout.

    I was a dual citizen, a “white” Mexican (as in anglo-saxon gringo), but despite all of the problems and frustrations that arise from living in and within México, still prefer it to the USA. There is something exceedingly creepy and pre-fascistic about the USA, and Americans in particular (in deference to the phlegmatic but passionate Canadians) are increasingly perturbed and quite frankly, I feel, unbalanced.

    Canadians at times will have a bee in their bonnet but are often more “in tune” with the world; at least the educated ones.

    Though the USA has great universities, cultural institutions and of course lots of other cool things, I find that it is mostly a paradigm for shopping as a way of life and an idealised middle class democracy.

    I would recommend to any “expat” to follow by dad’s advice (RIP): “STAY AWAY FROM OTHER EXPATS”. If you want to live, love and eat gringo, then by all means putter about Ajijic or San Miguel or whatever.

    As for México, and no thanks to Echeverría, López Portillo, the Technocrat creeps like Salinas, Fox etc. we are in a shambles. México should have become “South Korea” years ago. Our great error has been to foster and encourage NAFTA, ignore South America and strengthen ties and image in Europe.

    We suffer the criminality we suffer from due to corruption and an excessive dependence on the potheads to the North.

    Sorry folks: the danger for México was, is and shall be the overbearing influence of the USA and its ridiculous Protestant culture of “shoot and say sorry”. The land of Tea Baggers and Republicans is a really, really creepy place.

    Only those under thirty in México-completely swallowed up by “globalisation” really believe the USA (the land of rap and dope) is still a viable model for anyone. And even they follow suit only out of inertia. A sort of Brave New World scenario….pass the soma….

    In any case an interesting website and column and please, para conocer este país complejo y contradictorio, lo mejor es 1. no idealizarlo 2. no criticarlo sin un mínimo de diez años aquí y 3. con firmeza pero con gentileza saber decir “no” cuando alguien quiere abusar de vos.

    saludos…

  17. Julia Taylor Nov 1

    Sr. Baca,

    Gracias por sus comentarios.

    Saludos,

    Julia Taylor

  18. Sandra Szczepanski de Flores Jan 5

    I love this website! I moved to Mexico 2 years ago to teach English and never left. I love this country.Even if the people sometimes make me want to pull out my own hair!
    Recently I married a Mexican and we are now living in Santiago NL, just outside of Monterrey and what you say about the neighbours could not be more true! Your site also provided a lot of insight as to why my new husband and I keep having fights over stupid things, we just fight differently. I have called him a liar more than once because he doesn’t tell me the full truth, he also cannot admit when he doesn’t know something! I feel as though this page was written about us! Do you have any advice on how we can argue smart? His English is awesome and my spanish is crappy so we deal in English. How can I explain what I consider the truth and that if he doesn’t know something to tell me so?
    Also the page about ‘you know you’re becoming mexican when’ had me laughing so hard that it woke him up! It’s all so true!
    Wish I could get your book but I have no credit card and currently no money at all, but it sounds great!! keep the information coming!

  19. Julia Taylor Jan 7

    Sandra, Thanks so much for your comment. I’ve had a few people write and say how “wrong” I am (they really mean that they disagree with my perspective) and so it’s nice to hear from someone who found the writing reflective of their own experience. Keep on laughing! I don’t think I have advice on how to explain to him your perspective. I think you’ll just have to get good at understanding his and recognizing the signs so you don’t get so wound up about it.

    Living in Mexico should make you so flexible you can see the back of your own head. 😉

    Kindest Regards,

    Julia C Taylor

    PS I’m so glad you liked the “You Know You’re Becoming a Mexican When” jokes. I thought they were a stroke of genus, but have gone largely unappreciated.

  20. Karla Oct 18

    Your perspective is just from an “American (and I mean from the USA) because Mexicans are also American. I am proudly from Mexico City and have lived in the US for ten years and I think our culture difference are because of the extremes in both cultures, In Mexico we live collectively while in the US they live Independent, in Mexico “Solidarity” is a value and I dont think that is a value in the US, as well as sharing the food you have with friends or family, in Mexico we are relaxed, and we dont care if you show up to have a coffee and chat for an hour or two and if we have more to share we will put it on the table. In USA for example if: you ask for a ride, you are a looser, if you show up without invitation is rude, and if you need a hand, you are pretty much in your own. ….. They like to keep the distance from people and most of them (specially young people) just wave their hands instead of shaking hands. In general Latin American people are warmer and very polite, which some (not all) US American people find rude and dont forget that if the neighbor’s dog barks is rude too.. I am sorry but I know your culture as well as you know mine and the only thing I can say is .. that you as an US American (not all but most) are totally intolerant and we Mexicans are (not all) very unconsiderate to others. The fact is that for the most part Mexicans are more friendly and social, while the majority of US Americans are not Social or friendly and the individualism is their VALUE.

    Thank you.

  21. Julia Taylor Oct 20

    Karla,

    Thank you for taking the time to write it out the way you see it. I know totally what you mean. You’re so right that my perspective on this web site is that of an American going through culture shock adjusting to living in Mexico. After 8 years in Mexico I thought Americans were too cold, too. I was shocked when friends didn’t kiss each other’s cheek to say goodbye — just gave each other a “cold” goodbye wave from about 5 feet away from each other. On this web site, I tell it like it feels during the first few years.

    Again, Thank you.

    Regards,

    Julia C Taylor

  22. Luis Jan 4

    Hi Jullia,

    As good Mexican I haven’t read fully your website and article…hehehe, but I was wondering if you may have something about doing business in Mexico… You see, I’m negotiating with some Americans to represent their consumer brand in Mexico and sell it to retailers in Mexico. What I’ve found a little challenging is telling them that even though we may have the same clients as in the USA such as Walmart / HEB / Office Depot / Costco and others, doing business with US retailers in Mexico is not the same as it is in the USA. I know this because of personal experience,having worked for an American Company in Mexico, studied in the USA, etc; and I think their expectations is to work similarly as it is up north, but as you mention the “honesty” and “I give you my word” concepts are TOTALLY different!! Have you written anything about these concepts when doing business that I can refer to…?? I appreciate your help!!

  23. Julia Taylor Jan 15

    Hi Luis,

    I have had enough experience with doing business in Mexico to know what you mean, but no, I haven’t written such an article. I guess you might have to write your own…. That’s what I did when I wrote my book.

    I wish you all the best in your business.

    Regards,

    Julia C Taylor

  24. Federico Ramirez May 3

    Julia, I´m Mexican and live in Villahermosa Tabasco. I enjoy Mexico and I would like everyone would do the same. I appreciate that you have taken the time to help people. Regardless if I agree or not with your perspective, what really matter is that foreing people can find easier their place here if they need/want to. The life and earth is for all no matter the color of skin or race.

  25. jacquelynne garner Jun 23

    Hi,Julia,

    So good to find your website!I have lived in Mexico for many years (born in San Diego, so Mexicans always in my life) and have just began a relationship with my 4th Mexican “novio” in 22 years–younger than me, as usual, and certainly not as educated or well-traveled, etc. but most people anywhere aren’t.

    Even with so much experience,when he showed up yesterday for a night together (we’ve worked our way into a relationship but it only started “for real” a couple weeks ago) he brought a neighbor/good friend (male) who had beer (i don’t drink) and an eagerness to speak to me in bad english (i’m bilingual tho my spanish is a tad sloppy from 2 years of minimal use, hanging out mainly with americans–i spent those 2 years adjusting to americans!.) The guy was so enthusiastic and I just didn’t want him to be there tho I was polite until I found out that since they came in the same car, they expected to return in the same car which meant the friend staying the entire time and sleeping on the couch.

    I froze. I freaked. I tried to explain that in our culture that would be inconceivable (him spending the night or even being here more than an hour or 2) but for me to “send him away” would be equally inconceivable to them. We were all a-wallow in horrible feelings. My sweetie finally made up a reason for both of them having to go and though I didn’t want HIM to leave I really couldn’t imagine relaxing at all with the other guy there.

    Your writing on cultural differences really helped, as I have also had similar problems with neighbors, especially kids, kind of moving in on me until I had to be virtually rude, which I hated doing. I am a writer and a rather solitary person, and though I love people, only with an intimate other can I share extended time comfortably.

    I guess I can fall back on age differences also when I explain my feelings to my new guy–whom I would rather die than hurt, he is such a good good person in every way–and a caretaker of Americans, so I can use that as a little hook, too, to explain some differences.

    Also thanks for the tips on how not to lend stuff without saying “no”. My money and possessions are down to no-longer-lendable-nor replaceable, though one-to-one I can share, at home.

    Most of all, I need to show that I felt as miserable and guilty as the uninvited guest did, that setting boundaries is one of my new goals in life, and that I have to learn the balance between keeping happy and keeping alive (and not totally exhausted). I adore this guy, and couldn’t bear to offend.

    In the meantime, I’ve learned NEVER to ask Americans favors, but to still be able to be me and sociable and loving despite my relatively impoverished circumstances.

    I’ve made real friends of Mexicans who also have done work for me, and many Mexican families over the last many years–and I REALLY appreciate your discussion of class differences, as my three ex’s came from very different socio-economic classes. I am extremely capable of relating to people of all classes (and did so in my work) but basically, I am from the best neighborhoods, the best universities, the highest professional level, etc.– but never found love and class to have anything much to do with each other, so WOW…sounds like we have a lot in common.

    I live in La Mision, a small town between Rosarito and Ensenada. Would love to hear from you.

    Jacquelynne

  26. Julia Taylor Jun 25

    Jacqueline, Thank you for the clear example of a classic cultural difference. It can be so hard when our Mexican loved ones want us to host someone we aren’t able to share space with!

    Regards, Julia C Taylor

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