An "Aha!" into Mexican Culture

Agreeing on a time to meet and then having the other person show up late. Very late, at least by the clock. Or perhaps they don’t show up at all. You call the person. “Oops; plans changed. Can’t meet.”

Every expatriate living in Mexico knows that locals and expats often have very different orientations to time. It’s Mexican Culture 101. But knowing the difference, expecting the difference, doesn’t necessarily make it less frustrating when you’re living it on a daily basis.

Live and learn. That’s, hopefully, the story of life and most definitely the story of living abroad—a new adventure every day. We have sure learned a lot about Mexican and Mazatleco culture in the past four years of living here.

One of the learnings we’ve had that has really stood out for me this week is something I call “auto-protectivos” or “self-protectiveness.” In my day job I run a collaborative project in which we publish materials and a method for collaborating across cultures. I remember talking at length with my good friend, Rossana, co-author of Cultural Detective Mexico, after we first moved here. I told her that in my experience with Mexicans I didn’t really “get” the value she writes about called auto-protectivos. At the time she gave me lots of examples and talked me through it. It made sense. But I can’t recall what she taught me. I suppose I was not yet ready for it. I kept thinking, “but most Mexicans are very inclusive and welcoming. They’re not self-protective,” which I somehow saw as exclusionary.

On a very separate train of thought, I have repeatedly marveled at how Mexicans (or at least Mazatlecos) lack consideration for others. Please remember that I lived for years in Japan, the land of consideration for others. Any culture seems lacking in consideration compared to that. I’ve never felt locals here in Mexico lack consideration in a deep sense, as they are very loving people by and large. But in a superficial sense, more like: do they scoot down on a bench to make room for you to sit down or do you need to ask them? Or do they serve themselves food at a buffet without thinking about leaving some for those following them in line, that sort of thing.

Well, it turns out these two very different things — self-protection and my perception of lack of consideration — are actually very interrelated. I’ve finally developed my own “sense” around what this value that Rossana so kindly taught me means. It is fascinating how the learning comes in waves when you live overseas.

Let me share with you a few examples, from our experience, of when local friends have behaved (or we should have behaved) in a self-protective way, and how that relates to a possible outsider perception of lack of consideration for others:

  1. Yesterday, Greg and his compadre showed up at Sergio’s (another buddy’s) house at about 5:00 in the afternoon on a Friday, unannounced. Sergio greeted them in sweat pants and an undershirt. He got them plastic chairs and a beer and set them out in the shade of the street. He told them he’d be right back, and went inside to shower. We can’t imagine this happening in the States. If friends were to show up at my house unannounced, I might take a couple of minutes to change my blouse or to freshen my hair or face, but I’d sit down with my guests right away. But here the “wait while I bathe or finish what I’m doing” happens all the time, in our experience. While in the beginning I’d feel guilty for disturbing someone (“I should have called so they could have been ready”), I am now able to see their reaction as very functional auto-protectivo behavior. Sergio needed to bathe. He was happy to see his friends. He knew he’d be more comfortable if he were clean and refreshed, and he knew they would wait. They were comfortable. He was comfortable. All was well. No stress.
  2. Example two: Also yesterday, Danny had an event with a friend. He had another meeting with a second friend scheduled after the first. He was really excited about the first meeting. He wanted to make the second meeting, but more out of a desire to help a friend in need, more out of obligation. Well, at lunch we reminded Danny, who is by now quite bicultural but very responsible about his commitments to friends, “If you are having a great time this afternoon, don’t let the clock regulate you. Just call your other friend and tell him you’re running late. Take the time to enjoy yourself with your friend in the afternoon.” Well, sure enough, Danny did have a great time in the afternoon. When he called the second friend to tell him he’d be latE, the friend told him that oh, by the way, he’d have to cancel after all, because plans had changed. All was well. Everyone was happy. No worries. Four years ago, Danny would have ended his afternoon fun, arrived at the meeting spot on time by the clock for his second friend, had his friend not show, and then feel bad that he’d been blown off. It does strike me that this “self-protection” or taking care of yourself is actually a really healthy thing that a lot of gringos can learn from.
  3. Example three: We have a very good friend who is very handy. We often hire him to fix things for us around the house. He’s a compadre, so we’ve been all over the hora mexicana or hora gringa thing over the years. We both know cultures are different, and we know we are who we are. This morning our friend was due to come to our house at 10 am to fix an air conditioning thermostat that had gone bad. Greg and I needed to run a few errands. I said, “let’s go run them. Call him and let him know you’ll be back by 10:30. That way we can get our stuff done and still be on time by the Mexican clock.” “No,” Greg said, “I want to wait for him.” We talked it over. We decided that most probably he would arrive later than the appointed time, and we needed to take care of our own needs. If he arrived while we were out, he would call us or wait for us. So, we ran our errands. Got home about 10:45. Our friend had not come while we were out. When he did arrive just prior to noon, we were not at all inconvenienced. We had gotten done in the morning what we needed to get done. We had not inconvenienced ourselves, and we were happy to see our friend.

By exercising self-protectiveness in this cultural milieu, we don’t find ourselves getting upset at having waited, and we are able to take care of ourselves. It’s a very workable way of doing things. Importing some foreign concept of time or consideration of others just doesn’t bring joy or value to life here. We all have to find our own way, and acculturation is an ongoing process. We sure are enjoying the journey!

About Dianne Hofner Saphiere

There are loads of talented people in this gorgeous world of ours. We all have a unique contribution to make, and if we collaborate, I am confident we have all the pieces we need to solve any problem we face. I have been an intercultural organizational effectiveness consultant since 1979, working primarily with for-profit multinational corporations. I lived and worked in Japan in the late 70s through the 80s, and currently live in and work from México, where with a wonderful partner we've raised a bicultural, global-minded son. I have worked with organizations and people from over 100 nations in my career. What's your story?

5 thoughts on “An "Aha!" into Mexican Culture

  1. I guess that must be the name for what I used to do when I lived in Mazatlán… I moved in primarily Mexican circles, only one gringo I regularly associated with, and he was functionally Mazatleco. I learned to make several sets of plans or options for myself, even if ultimately it was just 'plan c: do whatever I feel like doing'. Once I got used to doing things that way I found I liked it better than living life by a day-planner. I also learned that not every 'plan' was really a plan, if that makes any sense. It's more like we were discussing possibilities. And I learned to sense which ones were likely to happen, as well as for which ones it was truly important to show up…When I was courting my future wife, I remember telling my American friend that she was always thirty minutes late for dates, etc… He replied, "Wow! Only thirty minutes late? She really likes you!"

  2. WONDERFUL story, Brian! Great insights, too, and they sure resonate with my own. Thank you for sharing! Life is a learning adventure for sure. Where are you now?

  3. We're in the Seattle area now, where, needless to say, a different set of cultural constructs apply. Had a wonderful trip to Mazatlán back in February – our first vacation in 4 years. Looking forward to Christmas in Mazatlán this year, our first in 6 years.

  4. I lived in Mexico for a year in college (10 years ago), and when I visit, I really have to talk myself through similar situations. This is a good explanation.

  5. Sooo true, Katie. We went up north for a few weeks this summer, and we found we really had to "talk ourselves through" things to re-acculturate and remember (how to drive, how to negotiate relationships with US friends and family). Crossing cultures is soooo delightful, and much more so when done consciously! 😉 Thank you for sharing!

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