Cultural Differences that my USA/Japanese Self has Experienced in Mazatlán

What are some of the major cultural differences I’ve experienced over the four years I’ve lived in Mazatlán? Surely, as an interculturalist, I should have some insight.

Too often, of course, our professions don’t serve us well in our personal lives; we don’t practice what we preach: the handyman’s home goes untended, the cobbler’s kids don’t have shoes. I trust that’s not blatantly true for me.
First, some qualifiers:

  • The below are gross generalizations. Everything is situational: for every truth the opposite is also true, in a different context or manner.
  • Observations often if not usually tell us more about the observer than about the observed. My perspective is as a USA-born person of a certain age, with a decade-plus of life experience in Japan. That is my bias or starting point.
  • I love differences, and the process of trying to figure out how to navigate new situations. Thus, my thoughts below are not intended to insult (every culture has different styles and habits, as does every person), but rather to explore and try to understand. I am still very much learning and would welcome your insights/teachings. Thanks.

No worries/I belong here: Come into a class or meeting late, even when it has two minutes remaining, and sit down, conveniently, in the end chair, expecting everyone who is already seated to shift their seats (rather than waiting for the class to finish and the next to begin). Push through, nearly pushing someone out of the way, even if the person pushing is a host or retail store employee and the person being pushed is a customer. It’s not rude or inconsiderate; it seems to be a mentality of “we all belong here.”

What’s really cool, in the situations described above, is that people also have a “live and let live” attitude, they lack the “get offended” gene: they move out of the way, they don’t mind a bit of a push; they expect it and allow that the other person has the right to do whatever s/he is doing. As with anything, there are limits….

Another example would be friends who invite themselves over to your house; they miss you. You prepare for their arrival, cooking up a storm, and then they never show. They don’t call, they don’t apologize. It’s the classic “plan ahead/control/honor obligations” mentality vs. a “be spontaneous/life happens” cultural divide, along with a “follow the rules/be polite” (wait to go until invited) vs. “relationship-first/take action” (I want to see her so let’s do it) gap. Plus the fact that my local friends here don’t expect me to fuss or “host” them the way I like to. Or maybe your friends do call, at the last minute, to explain they can’t come. Maybe you see them a few days later, and you ask them what happened. Huh? When? Oh, yeah; something came up. No offense is given, no offense is taken.

Even though in the situations above Mexicans may seem to lack consideration, in other contexts they absolutely demonstrate consideration: Many people remember amazing detail about your life, and the next time they see you they ask, if you had injured your knee even slightly, “How’s your knee?” Or they kindly remember that in passing you had mentioned your son was going camping, and they ask, “How was your son’s campout?” I know that I myself often forget such details. In this regard the communication style seems so considerate, so detail-specific, and reminds me of Japan. And there is definitely an expectation that I remember the same details: where they plan to go on Christmas break, who they will visit, etc. On that score I too often come up short.

Culture of caution: This is not a culture of trust, but rather, in gross generalization, distrust. People seem to expect you, as a buyer, to make sure the item is in good condition before receiving it, to make sure someone has done a good job if they are working for you. There seems to be little assumption of someone having done well. Even when it’s a very good friend who has done something for you, there is an expectation that you will inspect whatever it is and make sure it is done exactly to your liking. Sooo different from my Japanese-self mentality that this one has taken a whole lot of learning.

Negotiation/complaining: This was also a huge learning for me very early on in living here, because we were buying so many things (furniture, appliances, curtains) and contracting so many services (installs of ceiling fans, painting). I had to learn to voice concern or complaint, to negotiate price and timing. My US and Japanese styles absolutely did not work. I needed to be more assertive than I was used to, while also more social/convivial. There was a fine line: hold the negotiation and discussion of complaint tight, pointed, but with a big smile, a quick laugh, an obvious respect for the other person in wording. Much more firm, repetitive and persistent than I was used to. It felt rude to me, especially because I had heard Mexicans were indirect. This aspect of communication felt very direct, overly pushy, but with a nice veneer of a smile, polite language, and relationship-building phrases interspersed throughout. And lots of repetition and rewording.

Lack of thank yous: People in Asia or Europe often say the US is an “I love you” or “cheerleader” culture, with (often-empty) verbal professions of love, apology, thanks, encouragement. So I am obviously biased. But one of the surprises here for me was I’d give a gift, and the person would seem to like it, but would not express appreciation. Maybe admiration for the gift, or acknowledgement in some way. But I would be expecting thanks. The same for invitations to parties, paying for a meal, etc. The words “thank you” are not nearly so common here in my experience, and I wonder if they don’t add distance, a formality between people at the friend level? That sincere feelings don’t require a formulaic response. There is a similar lack of apologies here. Though that is one of my complaints in the USA as well. When a service person makes a mistake, or a vendor doesn’t meet a commitment, they so rarely take responsibility or apologize for the inconvenience. Again, probably my Japanese-influenced expectation. Whether in the US or in Mexico, my propensity to apologize tends to be seen as lacking in self esteem, when very often it is the exact opposite.

Bright side or enjoyment in the face of hardship: This is perhaps the characteristic that I most love and admire in my Mexican friends. They can be so graceful under pressure. We have friends whose house was built by someone they’ve known their whole lives, incorrectly. The roof leaks. The friend always, sort of, helps them fix it, but it’s never really fixed. They’ve now lived with a leaky house for four years. But they never yell, they never express the heightened emotion or frustration I would expect. When the roof starts leaking again they call the builder and start the process of fixing the leak, over and over again. The patience and tolerance is amazing.

This last fall we had horrible flooding in Mazatlán. Over 51 areas of town were inundated with dirty water, killing two children and destroying many homes and lots of furnishings. People worked all week to clean out the water, mud, and muck, and to dry their things. I saw tears, but I also saw lots of laughter. One family of friends, in the midst of their panic while the flood waters rushed into their home, ran out into the street, hugged one another and smiled for their daughter’s camera, yelling “Happy anniversary!” Definitely an admirable way to respond to something you have little control over. I want to learn more of this dignity and empowerment in the face of adversity!

One of the biggest challenges for me adjusting to life here has been that I CRAVE more cultural informants. I was spoiled: living in Japan for so many years, I was blessed with cultural informants and guides; Japanese loved to teach gaijin about Japanese culture. Even when I lived in Spain, I found loads of people who were more than happy to educate me on a daily basis. That has not at all been my experience here in Mexico. My local Mazatleco informants usually disagree with one another about the most simple things, and they are usually very reticent to “teach,” possibly because they just don’t “see,” that they have a culture, though they are very proud of it nonetheless. This place is not so self-reflexive as the one I spent so many years in in Asia. So, I have the “opportunity” to blunder through things and learn by doing a lot more. 🙂

I welcome your thoughts and insights! Enjoy the day!