26 April 2009

An observation on differences in culture...

For some time I have been trying to put my finger on the exact words to describe the differences between the Mexican culture and the American culture and I think I've got it. The culture in the United States is "quantitative" and the Mexican culture is "qualitative". Americans tend to measure everything precisely, especially time. Our schedules are exact, our laws are exact, our plans are well ordered, and we demand that results meet our expectations. In Mexico, however, time is relative to the occasion and how one feels about it. If a man does not come to work because he has a terrible "crudo" (hangover) he is usually excused with a shrug of the shoulders and the understanding that the bout of excessive drinking was probably unavoidable. Perhaps the man's favorite dog died or a friend who he hadn't seen for a long time came to visit, or his wife left him and went to live with her mother. Planning here is mostly a rule of thumb. If some one tells you, "Ahorita vengo", or "I'll be back in a moment", they might or they might not. It is just their way of being polite and keeping their options open. Much of the time expectations here are never met so expectations are usually low while hope is always high. It is a real paradox for a "Gringo" but even if I never understand it completely I am learning how to deal with it..."más o menos" (more or less).

More and more I can't help but compare the cultural differences between Mexico and the United States even though some things are similar in content if not format. For example, not long ago I was at a large convention center for an industry exposition and I observed something very typical of the profound difference between the two cultures. The Americans had arrived very early and had set up their booths and were waiting for a crowd of people. The Mexicans, on the other hand, didn't show up until mid-morning after a leisurely breakfast. Outside of the main exhibit hall at the convention center there was a fast food establishment that was offering things like hot dogs, hamburgers, and french fries. There were tables and chairs out on the main concourse like there would be on the concourse of any modern metropolitan shopping center, train station, or airport. At noon, many of the American exhibitors took turns to come out to grab a quick hamburger and fries so they could get back to their sales booths. All of the tables and chairs were occupied by Americans gobbling down their food in a big hurry while the Mexicans just stood around in small groups chatting amiably and watching the Americans with mild amusement. By about 1:pm most of the Americans were back at their stations manning their sales exhibits like wooden indians but by about 2:pm the Mexicans, including the Mexican exhibitors, had all but disappeared. Most of them had drifted off in groups to one of about three favorite restaurants for a nice long leisurely lunch where they could talk and visit one another from table to table. Now that I have learned the ropes and have paid my dues I am usually invited to go along with the Mexicans and I thoroughly enjoy myself. I would never be caught eating a hamburger at noon with the crazy Gringos. About 4:pm when the Americans are just about ready to declare a disaster, pack it in, and go home, the Mexicans start returning to the exhibit hall relaxed and smiling and ready to take it all in. It drives the Gringos nuts.

When sales people or industry officials come to visit us for a meeting the first time, very often they will send a proposed "agenda" beforehand. My companions at work think that these agendas are hilarious. Here is a recent typical agenda:


Introductions/Pre- Meeting Discussion 8:00 a.m.
Facility Tour 8:30 a.m.
Begin Meeting 9:00 a.m.
Lunch 12:00 noon
Resume Meeting 1:00 p.m.
Complete Day’s Activities/Summation 4:30 p.m.


Resume Meeting 8:00 a.m.
Lunch 12:00 noon
Complete Meeting/Post-Meeting Discussion 1:00 p.m.
Terminate Meeting Activities 4:30 p.m.

Usually what happens is that the meeting really doesn't get started until about ten o'clock because most of our management personnel are still in their "calzoncillos" (underwear) at 8:am and sitting out on their backyard patio drinking hot chocolate and watching the hummingbirds. We tell the secretary beforehand to apologize profusely for us and feed the visitors donuts until we arrive (after we have had a nice leisurely breakfast). Then when the meeting finally begins, the visitors rush through the preliminaries to make up for lost time in keeping up with the agenda and by noon you can hear the stomachs of the American visitors starting to grumble. When they mention "breaking for lunch" we just say "Ahorita" (in a little bit) and keep on going (because we just ate breakfast). About 2:pm we finally break for lunch (because now we are hungry too) and we take them to a nice comfortable restaurant with fantastic food for a leisurely two hour lunch. By the time we get back to work it is almost their quitting time and they are yawning. That is when the meeting resumes in earnest and when we start to drive home the deal. We finally break about 7:pm and take them to supper. The supper is twice as good as the lunch and we make sure that they have a wonderful time. We stay out late. The next morning they are not so eager to start the meeting so early and on day two they are content follow the Mexican style agenda. By the time the meeting ends and it is time for them to go to the airport or hotel all of the expectations of the meeting have been met and everyone is happy. If they can stay another day we take them sight seeing and make sure that they load up with plenty of souvenirs. After all, we must all do our part to help keep Mexico "green". Everybody who comes to visit us leaves with the sense that the people here really know how to live. We do...and we intend to keep it that way!


American Mommy in Mexico said...

"Our schedules are exact, our laws are exact, our plans are well ordered, and we demand that results meet our expectations."

Well said amigo! That is exactly what we do in USA.

Difference is the key word. Not better. Not worse. But different.

Donbeto said...

¿¡Qué onda, Gringo!?
I landed at your site searching - without method, as should do a mexican proud of his heritage- information about the Saint Patrick Battailion.
A lot of issues maintained my interest in your stories:
1.- My name is Humberto as the priest whom you refer in the delicious adventures around the old refrigerator
2.- My last name is the unusual and strange "García" as the, maybe fictitious, town where the story tooks place.
3.- I had an extraordinary "gringo" friend named Bob -Chandler-, here, in Monterrey. He passed away two years ago. And, as anglo's say, last but not least, because i have had a chronic interest at pursue the essentials of the differences between latino and anglo cultures.
¡Ojalá no sufras mucho por acá!
Un Abrazo (another difference)

Leslie Limon said...

I couldn't agree with you more! The people at work, say that I'm a very obvious gringa, because I always show up for work early! Have you been invited to a mexican party? They tell you that the party starts at 2pm, but the person throwing the party doesn't show up until 3-3:30pm. I agree with American Mommy, not better nor worse...just different

glorv1 said...

Whatever will be will be. I feel that if I don't get things done today, there is always tomorrow, in fact I think I said the same thing on todays post. Your post is an interesting one about "differences." I, the Mexican American here in the good old USA just take it a day at a time and count my blessing that I was able to. Your post is profound and I am sure you will get quite a few intellectual comments on it, but I'm not of the intellect nature and prefer to lie still.
::being quiet:: Actually I still have a lot of learning to do....someday....whenever the mood hits me....adio.

Steve Cotton said...

Nice distinction. Like all categories, the exceptions are manifold. But the rule strikes me as sound.

Constantino said...

Yep, Yep, Yep, I learned when we were building the house that tomorrow means sometime except not today....once I figured that out, life has been pretty stress free. However visits to the North, fuel the time definition....

Chrissy and Keith said...

I dont recall the Author or book, but I had read an extensive study of the subject. It boiled down to Americans think of time as linear and Mexicans treat it as circlular. Never ending or beginning, always just an continuation. Sign me up for plan 2 please. Reason 43 we will live in Mexico.

Constantino said...

Hey Bob, you can also write about the reason Mexicans hate to say no...to anyone, so they always will say yes to almost anything, but never perform.....another analytical topic....

American Mommy in Mexico said...

Constantino - I hear ya!

We had guests recently and someone answered Yes (Si) to us for some question or another. I motioned to the guests that that the answer could still be yes or no ...

Felipe said...

Ah, Bob, Bob, Bob. The things you appear to find appealing about the Mexican culture are exactly those things that contribute to making the economy move at a snail´s pace which, of course, keeps people poor.

Contrary to what many non-poor tend to think, being poor is not fun. It is not charming. It is not interesting. To the poor folks involved, I mean. Observers do tend to find it charming, interesting and fun.

I do not find the unreliability, the fact you cannot trust that Mexicans will do what they say they will do, etc., etc., to be charming. Quite the contrary.

The fact that the Mexican economy is improving from the top down, literally (beginning up north where we abut the Gringos), is due to American values seeping over the border. A good thing for Mexico.

May these values of responsibility and truth, in time, filter all the way down (literally) to Chiapas.

Suzanne said...

There's a really great book that deals with everything mentioned in your post as well as the comments.

'There's a Word For It in Mexico' by Boye Lafayette De Mente.

First, it gives a concise history of Mexico which is background for everything mentioned above, then goes on to describe all the reasons (for good or bad of the people) that life occurs the way it does here.

It is based around a study of key words, historical background, cultural and business conceptions and is written in short essay form, so you can take a long time to read it - probably good practice for those of us living here in Mexico


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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.