We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.

In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:

A primer on how to avoid mistakes in Mexico

Mexicans have a somewhat relaxed sense of time, so be patient. Arriving 15 minutes late is common. In Mexico, answering with what? it’s considered a bit rude and will sound like if you have no respect for the person or that you are mad at them. When someone said something, and you didn’t understood what they said- or when people call you to ask for something you should use the word mande/ ¿Mande?. This is a custom in Mexico since the time Spaniards where controlling the country, and made the indigenous people answer with Comándeme mi señor wich it later transformed into mande. To recap: if you want to sound friendly and respectful always use ‘mande’.

Some people may tolerate the ‘que word, as you are a tourist and Mexicans know not everyone knows every custom they have. In Mexico the custom is to greet a person by kissing their right cheek just once (Many Mexicans will kiss someone at the time they are introduced rather than shake hands. No everyone will do so, but keep it in mind.) It is only between men-woman, woman-woman.

culture photo

Photo by fluffisch

When anyone, even a total stranger, sneezes, you always say “¡salud!” (“bless you!” or more literally, “your health!”): otherwise, it is considered rude. In rural areas, particularly in the Mexican heartland (Jalisco, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, etc.), the even more pious “Jesús te bendiga” or Jesús (May Jesus bless you) will follow a sneeze.

The great majority of the population is and traditionally has been Roman Catholic, and there is still a strong following of this faith among Mexicans from all socioeconomic backgrounds. However, missionary activity from the US made a sizable Protestant community, and even the smallest towns seem to have an Evangelical or Pentecostal church.

One of the world’s largest communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses also resides in Mexico. Smaller communities, like Mormons and Jews also live in small concentrated areas throughout the Republic. In many respects, Mexico is still a developing country, and attitudes towards LGBT travelers can at times be hostile.

However, Mexico City legalized same-sex marriage and the supreme court ruled that these marriages must be recognized by all states in the rest of the republic, thus tacitly making same-sex marriage legal in the whole country (provided the wedding takes place in Mexico City). Just as it is not wholly accepted in the rural United States or rural Canada, it is not accepted in rural Mexico. But within cities, there is a much more relaxed atmosphere.

When entering churches, always take off any sunglasses, caps or hats. Wearing shorts is rarely a problem, but still wear a sweatshirt or sweater around your waist to avoid showing too much skin, which could be disrespectful in such places. However, away from the beaches, or northern areas, shorts are very rarely worn by Mexicans on the street and thus will attract more attention to you and may make you stand out as a foreigner. Respect Mexico’s laws. Some foreigners hold on to the popular misconception that Mexico is a place where laws can be broken and the police bribed at all times.

Corruption may be more common among Mexican police and public figures, but Mexican society as a whole has been coming to terms and undertaking various measures to eradicate systemic corruption from the ground up. So when foreign nationals behave in a manner which shows expectancy of this easy bribery, it will be considered extremely distasteful and disrespectful, as well as sufficient incentive for local police to give you “a respect lesson”. Remember, offering a bribe to an official could get you into trouble.

Like in other countries; politics, economics and history are very delicate issues, yet in México they are also considered good conversation pieces when conversing with foreigners. Just like in Europe, Canada and the US, Mexico’s democracy is vibrant and diverse, and people have a variety of opinions. As Mexico only recently became a true viable democracy, however, there is an eagerness on behalf of Mexicans to share their opinions and political ideas with you. Common sense applies, just like it does in your country: If you don’t know enough about Mexico’s political landscape, ask as many questions as you like, but avoid making broad generalizations or strong statements.

Many US citizens (and to a lesser extent other foreigners) make careless mistakes while conversing with Mexicans. Mexicans, while strong and thick-skinned, can also be very sensitive. So avoid talking frankly or imprudently about Mexico’s flaws, unless prompted by someone you really trust. Avoid making comparisons that might be interpreted as if you consider Mexico is in some way inferior to your home country. Mexicans are very well aware of their country’s problems: if you let Mexicans talk long enough, they will eventually point out their country’s shortcommings to you for themselves at length. Unless it’s habitual or expected, avoid the more contentious topics of illegal immigration to the US, the drug trade, the monopolies: these are complex, gloomy issues that generally everybody tries to avoid.

Mexicans can be very analytical, but their reasoning manifests itself in ways which appear informal or unorthodox to foreigners: unless absolutely critical, it’s safe to assume Mexicans understand your explanations, even if they reach your conclusions by some other method, process or reasoning. Sometimes people may want to avoid continually overanalyzing heavy issues and may instead want light banter or lighter topics. In this case, you may want to mix it up, by talking about Mexico’s better qualities: the food, the friendly people, the scenery, the culture. This will make you a very good friend in a country that can seem menacing to take on by yourself. Do not assume that because you are a US citizen, you are an immediate target for kidnapping: the vast majority of kidnapping victims are Mexicans, not foreigners. “Don’t panic”.

Do not be overly cautious, especially if you have hosts that are taking care of you and know where —and where not— to go: you run the risk of annoying your hosts, or making the situation unnecesarily awkward by giving them reasons to suspect you do not trust them. As a general rule —for better or worse— wealth and social status are historically tied to European ancestry and skin color. On the one hand, systemic racism is illegal, and overt expressions of personal racism (i.e., racist slurs) are frowned upon.

On the other hand, the country is still about 40 years behind the United States in terms of diversity sensitivity. For example, although the majority of Mexico’s population are not of solely European ancestry (they are mostly mestizo or Amerindian), you will immediately notice that the characters in the country’s cinema, television, advertising and other popular media are overwhelmingly portrayed by persons of European descent. That is, Mexico has not participated in the dialogue that has been going since the 1960s in the United States about developing media products that make at least a token attempt to reflect the true racial and ethnic diversity of the country for which they are produced.

To a large degree, Mexican society is sharply divided by social class; with the rich, middle class, and poor often living very separate lives, with very distinct, sometimes mutually exclusive cultural tastes and practices. Regardless of substantial inter-class solidarity; clubs, bars, and restaurants largely cater either to one crowd or another, and a wealthier person or tourist might be made to feel out of place in a working class cantina; a poor looking person may get unfriendly treatment or be blatantly refused service at an exclusive establishment.

There are many words in the country for referring to people according to their ethnic background: Do not be offended to be called a “güero(a)” (blonde) and its diminutive form “güerito(a)” (blondie), as its a common way for the average Mexican citizens to refer mostly to Caucasian people, including white Mexicans. The words “gringo” and its synonym “gabacho” are used regardless of the actual nationality of the tourists and should not they be taken as offensive nouns. Actually, they are often used as terms of affection.

If you are East Asian, you will be referred to as “Chino(a)” (Chinese) and its diminuitive form “chinito(a)” regardless of whether you are Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, Filipino, Korean, etc. You will find exceptions to this umbrella term in Mexico City, Mexicali, Monterrey and other urban centers with decent-sized asian diaspora communities do exist.

If you point out to a Mexican that you are not “Chino” but actually from another country, they will then call you by that demonym. If you are black, the term “negro(a)” or “negrito(a)” may seem harsh, especially if you are from the US, but by no means is “negro(a)” a term of contempt.

There aren’t that many black people in Mexico (except on the east and west coasts in the south); even then, Vicente Guerrero, a mulatto (of mixed European and African descent) became a key leader of the resistance during Mexico’s independence and later became the second president. Mexicans, especially the younger generations, are not prejudiced or discriminatory. They might even get a “kick” out of fraternizing with someone who is black, as black people are sometimes regarded as contributory to a small or distant town’s “cosmopolitanism”. Historically, all Middle Easterners were refered to as “turcos” (even if they were from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, etc). Younger generations with better notions of geography will probably not use this term. (All of these are informal terms of endearment.

You will hardly ever see them used in serious discussion, or in writings of an academic or journalistic nature.) People address each other depending on their social status, age and frienship. If you try to use your Spanish to address people, be careful to distinguish between the use of the personal pronoun “tu” (informal, friendly) and its counterpart “usted” (formal, respectful). Using “tu” can be demeaning to people, specially when used on strangers, since this is the form traditionally used for addressing close friends or children. For foreigners, the best way to deal with the “tu” and “usted” confusion is to always address people using “usted” until invited to use “tu” (or until given clear hints that the relationship has evolved into a frienship, such as being addressed by your first name).

Using “usted” all the time will perhaps make you sound a shade old-fashioned but definetely always respectful. Trying to learn the difference between “tu” and “usted” in the real world will expose you to the risk of sounding embarrassingly uneducated and/or awkwardly overfamiliar. Always use the “usted” personal pronoun when adressing law enforcement officers (or other authority figures), even if they use “tu” to address you. To recap: unless the person is genuinely your friend, the person is under 16, or the person tells you explicitly to use “tu”; use “usted”.

The rules for “usted” also apply to the personal pronoun “contigo” (informal, friendly) which is substituted in favor of “con usted” (formal, respectful). To refer to a woman, always call her “señorita” (Miss) unless you are sure that she is married, then you call may her “señora” (Mrs). When talking to an older man, use “señor” irrespective of his marital status. If you want to call a waiter, address him as “joven” (“young man”) if he is younger, and “caballero” (gentleman) if he is the same age or older than yourself. In formal settings it is common for people to address each other by their professional title (“ingeniera”, “arquitecto” “doctora” “oficial”, etc).

Actually Mexican people will use the “tu” and the “usted”, “first name” or “surname” depending on their relationship, the setting, the company present, and all sorts of contextual cues, all of which makes for a code is not easy to learn. Even Mexicans themselves and other native spanish-speakers make mistakes. While the noun “güey” is reasonably equivalent to “dude” or “mate” among young people, it’s categorized as a swear word by older generations. Which is why it’s considered very rude to use it to address people older than yourself. This abrasive term of endearment is used only between (and in the company of) people who have achieved a certain high level of trust, so avoid using it otherwise.

In spanish, the adjective “estúpido” means far, far worse than “stupid” does in English. Due to the highly matriarchal nature of Mexican culture, the combination of words “tu madre” (your mother) is cacophonous and taken offensively by spanish-speakers, regardless of age or gender. If you must use it, remember to replace it with “su señora madre” at formal situations or the sweeter “tu mamá” at informal ones. Never ever use strong language when talking to a female. If the female asks you to, do so with caution. There is a strong degree of male courteousness towards women.

This is manifested in standing up when a lady enters a room, opening or holding a door, conceding preference or rights of way, giving up a seat, offering a hand when stepping down from a steep step, etc. While normally considered flirtatious or patriarchal by foreigners, these behaviours constitute a sign of respect for women. And are generally reserved for older women, or females of great power, merit and social stature. Rejecting these types of friendly gestures is considered arrogant or rude.

With this, you had the primer on key facts about Mexico, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Mexico food and drinks:

Local food you should try in Mexico and No miss drinks in Mexico.

Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Mexico? Please comment below.