Preparing for our move to Mexico, Barbara and I have read and reread Judy King’s article she published in the Lake Chapala Review in February of this year.
It contains valuable information that I am copying and offering to those of you planning to visit Mexico.
Judy’s advice is to start by learning her list of “basic etiquette tips and customs.” She says not to be discouraged, as it might take time to automatically respond correctly, and stop saying “Good bye,” when you think you mean “Hello.”
OK, here we go.
Adios: Whenever driving and you want to shout a cheery greeting to those you are passing, or when you meet someone on the sidewalk, but can’t take time to stop and visit, the correct greeting is “Adios.” The only time you say “Buenos dias,” (Good day), is when you have time to stop and chat. Coming or going, you are blessing those you meet by saying, “Adios.” In effect, you are placing the person in God’s hands.
Eye contact: I was taught to look one in the eyes when speaking to them. In Mexico, holding one’s gaze is deemed aggressive or flirtatious behavior. So, look at or near the other person’s eyes. With the opposite sex, intent eye contact can be considered a come-on. In some rural areas, looking intently at a baby can be interpreted as an attempt to cast the “evil eye.” You can show your good intentions and release the parents’ concern by reaching out and softly touching the baby’s hand or foot.
Introductions: When you meet someone new, be the first to respond vocally to the formal introduction. That way you can be the one to say, “Con mucho gusto” (with much pleasure). Your new acquaintance will then respond with one of the several more difficult phrases.
Handshaking: Men always shake hands at a first introduction, and at the next several meetings. Just a gentle squeeze, pr favor, as a bone-crushing grip is considered aggressive and invasive. Men’s handshakes evolve into a traditional abrazo (hug), where the handshake is used to move in closer as the men exchange a hearty hug, and three warm pats on the upper back. Women must initiate all handshakes. More often the handshake between a man and a lady or between two ladies is just a soft touching of right hands, and a kiss near the right cheek. Even the tiniest toddlers are taught to offer their hands for the saludos (greetings), often before they learn to talk. All girls and many little boys are accustomed to giving each adult un besito (a little kiss) when they arrive and as they prepare to depart.
Tossing and throwing: Never, ever toss something to a Mexican, even a close friend. The simple act of lofting a pencil or a key ring across a room is viewed as a harsh insult and can cause an immediate hurt and an angry reaction.
Physical contact: It might take you some time to learn to cope with being bumped, jostled, and touched in crowded situations. My cop street-wise side likely would have me immediately reaching for my wallet, thinking I was surrounded by pick pockets. In large crowds, as at fiestas, street markets, parades, and sporting events, I noted that when I paused to clear a space and waited for others to pass, those coming toward me never exchanged the courtesy, and often nudged me out of the way. When I realized that the constant contact was a normal situation, I wondered if they were being deliberately inconsiderate? My attitude changed, however, when I realized that many Mexicans grow up with whole families, including three or four children, sleeping in a single room. With the extended family living in a single dwelling, the inevitable and constant physical contact at home gave bumping and touching on the street a different context. Studies show that North Americans reflect their need for space by communicating most comfortably at a distance of 36-48 inches. Hispanics, on the other hand, move in closer to about 18 inches.
The shopkeeper: Try to remember to say “Buenos dias” or “Buenos tardes” (Good afternoon) as you enter a business, even if the owner or clerk is not in sight. We’re accustomed to not “bothering” the clerk until we need help. Delaying that first greeting is considered not only unfriendly, but also dismissive to Mexican employees.
Put the money into the hand: OK, a small detail, but an important one. At the grocery store, the taco stand, even when paying the housekeeper each week, put the money directly into their hand. Placing it on the counter or tabletop for them to pick up is considered a snub—an indication that you don’t want to make direct contact with them.
The (even slightly) bad words and smutty jokes: Don’t learn to swear in Spanish (too late for me!), leave the Spanish words for pirates and parrots. That way you won’t be tempted to disgrace yourself, or even let a bad word slip accidentally. Today’s Mexico, even among the rich and famous, is more like it was north of the border in my grandma’s day—at least where language is concerned. Yes, you might hear workmen drop a string of expletives. So be it. While slightly off-color jokes and double entendres often are bandied about when the men and the women are in separate groups, it is extremely disrespectful in the presence of the opposite sex or in front of children.
Remember. Mexico is not North America. Viva la differencia!