La Cortesía (Politeness): Cultural etiquette in Mexico


Gracias (thank you) and por favor (please) are phrases that always accompany asking an employee, or anyone, to do something. Con su permiso (with your permission) is always used when excusing yourself from a social or work world encounter. Mexicanos are very polite and formal in their discourse.

When entering a room, whether a public place full of strangers or people you know, always address those present with buenos dias, buenas tardes or buenas noches. Americans often enter a room without saying anything, even when seeing friends. Maybe we grunt a “hi” or “hello,” but we are very casual; and that informality is perceived by Mexicanos as a lack of gentility. Our informal communication style often blinds us to how important formalities are to Mexicanos.

In addition to being polite, being humble is, most surely, a cultural virtue. A Mexicano will rarely talk about his house; it is always “su casa”, your house. Modesty and humility are expected of educated and well-bred Mexicanos. When discussing someone who is likable, and noble,  Mexicanos will often refer to that person as muy sencillo—very simple.

U.S. folks are taught that a little bragging doesn’t hurt, whether we are bragging about ourselves or others. We have a saying, “If you don’t blow your own horn someone will use it as a spittoon”.  In México, if you brag about yourself or flatter the person you are talking to it is embarrassing.

The Mexicano saying is echando demasiado crema al taco, putting too much cream on the taco. I believe this differing view of modesty accounts for gringos being the world’s greatest salesmen while Mexicanos are slow to accept sales and marketing in their culture.

Another aspect of la cortesia, that baffles North Americans is the avoidance of conflict. We are trained to be assertive. To express what we believe and what we want or don’t want from another person. The Mexicano avoids conflict,  or displeasing the other person,  in order to preserve and respect graciousness.  To be gracious is culturally more important that being candid and direct.

This cultural dichotomy results in the U.S. businessman believing he has succeeded in convincing a Mexicano to accept a proposal when in fact the Mexicano is just being polite and telling the person what he or she wants to hear.

When phone calls go unanswered or appointments not kept, the gringo believes the Mexicano is being flaky, dishonest, or irresponsible. In fact, it is just a polite way of avoiding a confrontation or an open refusal to your offer, which is considered rude behavior.

I can usually predict, within the first interview, whether or not a foreigner will succeed culturally in Mexico. If the person exhibits traits of being inflexible, impatient, domineering, or arrogant, trouble is ahead. If the prospective client has a superior attitude towards Mexico and is quick to criticize—FORGET IT!

Mexico is not everybody’s cultural cup of tea and the quicker that is realized the better. However, if you are willing to learn from Mexicanos about civility the payoff is enormous.

I am a better person for having assimilated into this culture, and I still have a lot to learn. Inside, I will always be the cocky, street-tough Oakland homeboy. What has changed is that I monitor that behavior with the graciousness this ancient and beautiful culture has taught me. I want people to think of me as muy sencillo. In our souls I think we are all simple people. We just need the cultural training to exhibit that in our social discourse.

But if you “can’t get off it”, if you think your attitude is you— Mexico is definitely not for you.

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