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Expats will undoubtedly experience some degree of culture shock in Mexico. This North American country’s rich and varied way of life can seem mysterious at first, and the frustrations that come from the challenges of adaptation are often compounded for those who don’t understand Spanish, the country’s main language.
It may be all too easy for new arrivals to become overly judgmental and frustrated by customs and practices that seem incredibly foreign to them, but which are completely natural to Mexicans.
Studying some of the nuances of the culture can make the first few months in Mexico not only more tolerable but also more enjoyable. Learning to laugh at and accept certain realities are two crucial behaviours that can help ease culture shock in Mexico.
For the most part, despite some initial 'ruffled feathers', most expats are won over by the warmth of Mexican culture. Not to mention, with a low cost of living, many expats will find their lifestyle considerably easier in Mexico. With enough income, it’s easy to overlook any differences that might initially be culturally difficult to stomach.
Time in Mexico
The laid-back, lazy pace that makes Mexico an ideal vacation spot also makes it an infuriating place to tackle the simple tasks demanded by relocation. It can take forever to complete errands that may otherwise be quick and easy in an expat's home country, and it is frequently impossible to work to a rigid schedule.
Dinner time and bedtime may be later than what expats are used to, which can impact families with children, and friends meeting for social gatherings are rarely punctual.
New arrivals must understand that ‘ahorita’, translating to ‘right now’, in reality, most likely means ‘later’. This may not be acceptable in one's home country, but adjusting to the flow of life makes things much easier.
Language barrier in Mexico
Mexico is a Spanish-speaking country, and while some Mexicans, especially in the cities and tourist hubs, speak English, many do not. Many expats living in Mexico may get on fine only knowing a few key Spanish words, though these foreigners usually surround themselves with other English-speaking expats. But trying to learn Spanish can be fun and useful, and the effort made is appreciated.
Knowing the language gives foreigners the upper hand when looking for employment, understanding prices and following basic instructions on packaging. Even the most basic language course will go a long way.
Meeting and greeting in Mexico
Expats in Mexico will quickly notice that most Mexicans, both friends and casual acquaintances, kiss each other on the cheek in greeting.
For foreigners, trying to figure out when to engage in this charming custom can be confusing, especially when someone leans towards someone expecting them to kiss back. Even those who are familiar with kissing in other cultures may find that Mexican cheek kissing has its own set of rules.
Greeting with a kiss may not apply in business or professional settings or with strangers, and shaking hands is the preferred method.
Dining in Mexico
When dining at a restaurant, it isn't unusual for strangers to say 'provecho' (enjoy your meal) to others at a table, as they leave the restaurant. This open, friendly communication is common in Mexico and is an excellent example of a culture that is incredibly polite and congenial.
Expats should remember that in this situation, and generally when at a loss as to what to say, replying with 'gracias' (thank you) is always an appropriate response.
Religion in Mexico
Mexicans, as a rule, are tolerant of other religions and lifestyles, and it’s not uncommon for locals to belong to more than one church. In large cities, a wide range of religions can be found. As a result, expats living in Mexico have the freedom to celebrate and embrace their faith without fear of reprisal from others.
Nevertheless, it is predominantly a Roman Catholic culture, a truth evidenced by the sheer number of local holidays, fiestas, pieces of artwork, popular songs, nativity scenes and altars on government property which celebrate Catholicism.
Religious festivities are common, and everyone can enjoy the happenings along with the rest of Mexico without fear of exclusion. Joining in can better help expats familiarise themselves with Mexican culture. Expats should note that these festivities can often cause inconveniences and traffic jams.
Communication in Mexico
In surprising similarity to many Asian cultures, when Mexicans communicate, they make an extended effort to be polite and not disappoint. It is common to be told that things are possible when they are not, that something will happen which never does, and to be given an answer even when one is unknown. This may be why many expats have the experience of asking for directions only to receive a set of wrong instructions.
If the truth is unappealing, Mexicans often will still provide an affirmative response and then may fail to deliver. In terms of business communication, prices for projects often escalate after an original quote has been given because the actual cost of the project was too unappealing to initially provide.
While this is less of a problem with Mexicans who have lived in the United States or are accustomed to doing business with foreigners, exasperated expats should be wary of 'yes' answers that come too quickly and should get multiple opinions on matters of importance.
Bureaucracy in Mexico
Mexico is a country of bureaucracy. When opening a bank account, buying property, dealing with visas or sorting out any legality, the sheer number of documents and signatures required can feel overwhelming and senseless.
Every piece of paperwork must be saved because it's likely to be needed at a later date, and many documents must include an official stamp or signature or else it isn't legal.
Few expats can avoid complaining, but at least they are in good company; the average Mexican on the street is equally as frustrated.
Family in Mexico
Family is of the utmost importance in Mexican culture, and family obligations often take precedence over work responsibility. Families can seem confusing in their extended complexity and, although things are changing, it is common for them all to live together.
At some point, expats may feel excluded by the sheer size and closeness of Mexican families. They love to be together, and even call their friends 'hermanos' (brothers) and 'hermanitas' (sisters) in affection, making it difficult to figure out who is actually related.
Children in Mexico are loved and adored and appear to have no restrictions put on their behaviour, especially boys.
Traditionally, young lovers move in with their in-laws, having children at a young age. To many Mexicans, it’s odd that when someone marries in other cultures, they move out of the house to get away from their parents. That said, modern households are evolving, with extended families living in separate households.
Mexican helping hand
This is one of the best things about Mexican culture. If anyone has a problem with their car, if they are lost or just need help, someone will come to their aid. Mexicans won’t say no to someone in distress, and sooner or later, expats will be the happy recipients of this behaviour.
On the other hand, this same attitude may be a cause of lengthy delays. For example, if someone’s car breaks down, a stranger may stop everything they are doing to help, and even request friends come to assist. But this may also mean mechanics may not complete their work on an expat’s car in time as they have been busy assisting others in need.
Like other parts of Mexican culture, accepting this without frustration will go a long way.
Gender issues in Mexico
Mexican society is traditionally patriarchal, with the male breadwinner and the roles of wives and mothers centred on cooking and cleaning.
This is changing over time with progress in gender equality, but gender-based discrimination remains an issue in social and business settings.
►For information about staying safe in the country have a look at our Safety in Mexico page
"Enjoy Mexican culture – there is a reason you came to Mexico and it wasn’t just the beach (I hope!)." Read our interview with Marcia for some great tips on dealing with culture shock and settling in.
"...international expat population, generous and welcoming Yucatan population, more cultural events than anyone can go to, lots of music, dancing, beautiful architecture..." Ellen and Jim list what they love about their home in Mexico – read about it in our interview.
Are you an expat living in Mexico?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Mexico. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
Marcia graduated with a BFA in painting, and began her career drawing animated Saturday morning cartoons for Marvel Comics. After eight years, she moved to the computer industry, designing computer games. As that industry evolved with the advent of the internet, Marcia moved to designing and producing software for businesses. Every year, the computer industry became more and more stressful, and she and her husband, Kim, spent more time in Mexico in out of the way places where they couldn't be reached by nagging CFO's. Eventually, they purchased a small piece of jungle-covered beach in Southern Quintana Roo. That piece of beach became Mayan Beach Garden Inn, where Marcia and Kim are now permanent residents.
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