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Crossing Cultures Respectfully

Merida is a city where people take time to enjoy one another’s company.Despite all the social changes of the past few years, respect still retains highest priority status. For traditional Yucatecans, it is so important to not publicly offend, criticize, or be scornful of another person’s choices or lifestyle. In most families, Mamá is cherished and Papá is listened to with full attention. Children do not talk back cheekily to their parents or grandparents and elders are revered. Teachers are obeyed. Younger siblings are taken care of, neighbors’ idiosyncrasies are tolerated and passers-by are greeted in the streets – “Buenos días” or “Buenas tardes” is always murmured as one walks by.

When a person comes into a room, they greet everyone there – often with kisses and endearments. If two people are speaking and another person comes into the room, the conversation stops and the newcomer is acknowledged. If someone is having a party and you bring an extra person (or persons) – even without notifying your host, the extras are welcomed as though they were at the top of the guest list.

In Yucatan, utmost respect is extended towards elders.On the other hand, if respect is not shown, the absence is palpable.

In most places in North America or Europe, showing this over-the-top courtesy is not common and so newcomers to Merida may not think to extend it. Because some Yucatecans do not have a lot of experience with the social mores of other countries, they can easily be offended if the pleasantries are not forthcoming. It is difficult to know what exactly should be done, but the basic rule of thumb is that no one should be left alone in a crowd. If you are in a group, be sure everyone is greeted and introduced to everyone else present. If someone new comes into the room (even if they are, in fact, interrupting) they should be made to feel welcome. Inclusion is very important.

As guests in this country, we need to take a back seat sometimes. Yucatecans do not really appreciate our analysis of all that’s wrong with this city. We need to be very sensitive of what we say when native-born people are within earshot. I was at a party once and there was a group of foreign men loudly discussing the merits of the local supermarket…

Why don’t ‘they’ have a properly equipped hardware section?” one fellow asked the others.

I know what you mean, I was looking for 1¼ inch screws the other day, and do you think I could find them?” answered his buddy.

They continued to criticize the way the store was stocked, how poorly it was run, and then went on to complain how “hardly anyone speaks English”. My Yucatecan husband was not amused, and when we got into the car, he exploded,

Who do those guys think they are? To start with most people who shop at that store don’t ever have need for 1¼ inch screws; they have workmen who buy them… at a hardware store! Secondly, we are on the metric system here, and thirdly, we speak Spanish in “this” country!

In Yucatan, people of different cultures can learn from one another.I don’t think the men had any idea that they were being offensive, but Jorge would have nothing to do with them after that – ever, ever, ever!

Neither are Yucatecans at all interested in hearing about how products / services / schools / government / etc. “are better run back home”. I’ve known women who claim even Jello is “not as good” here! I’ve had it pointed out to me that Yucatecans themselves will often comment about inadequacies they encounter, but that’s different… It’s OK to berate your own culture and way of doing things, but you don’t like to hear outsiders do so. We can draw a parallel with this and how we feel about our families. We can criticize them all we want and do so very vocally but if anyone else does – watch out!

It is best to keep our opinions to ourselves when we are in the presence of Yucatecan friends and acquaintances. But sometimes, this is unavoidable; how can we state what we feel without coming across as rude? Let’s go back to the case of the fellow who needed 1¼ inch screws. Instead of criticizing the store (which was interpreted as a badmouthing the whole culture!) it would be better to ask,

Hey, I tried to buy 1¼ inch screws the other day; the store I went to didn’t have them… where can I go?”

This may sound like taking things to ridiculous limits, but the sensitivity is there, and you have to work around it.

I’ve heard newcomers speak hotly and loudly about so many situations and circumstances they don’t understand and often they preface their complaint with,

What’s the matter with these people / this country / this government …?

Once I attended a concert that was quite late getting started… An English voice beside me exclaimed,

Why can’t anything here ever start on time?”

All the Yucatecans in the vicinity had very offended looks on their faces; I was most uncomfortable, and the English-speaker was poised to continue with his commentary…

In Yucatan, children are included in festivities.“Remember, lots of people here understand English; be careful what you say!” I whispered to him. To his credit, he kept quiet after that.

It’s also a good idea to refrain from speaking English loudly in public. Try not to call out at full volume when you see a friend down the isle of the grocery store. Neither should you laugh uproariously because those around will not understand the joke and could conclude you’re laughing at them. Yucatecans are not used to boisterous North American ways and after all, we are in their country…

Once in a while, you will probably encounter a Yucatecan with very strong opinions about “your” country. I have had this experience and I usually cut the comments off by saying,

Let’s not confuse the politics with the people!”

In Yucatan, teachers and students are friends.This usually softens the attack, but if it doesn’t, I continue,

As a foreigner here, I am not permitted to make political statements; I don’t want to create controversy, so let’s talk about something else.

The bottom line is, that as transplants in Yucatan, we have to adjust our yardstick to the status-quo in Merida, and avoid making direct criticisms of everything that is not satisfactory to us. We need to include people and be sensitive to their needs. We need to be tolerant of what we encounter around us and save our evaluations until we are in the privacy of our own homes. This isn’t always easy, but if you can manage to adopt this behavior, you will be considered muy educado – well mannered. People will warm up to you and treat you with the same respect you’ve shown them.


Editor’s Note: Joanna van der Gracht de Rosado is a writer from Vancouver, Canada who has been living in Merida, Yucatan for over 30 years. She is the author of Tomando Agua de Pozo (Taking Water from the Well), which recounts many of her experiences assimilating in Mexico. You can read her Yucatan Living interview here and visit her blog here.


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35 Responses to “Crossing Cultures Respectfully”

  1. I have seen the same all over the world. How difficult is it to be appreciative, attentive and always wear a smile? Life can be simple and beautiful if we permit it. We all have to remember that we create our own problems many times. Particularly in a Spanish speaking country, you will be surprised when you say “Buenos Dias” even to a complete stranger what a fantastic response you receive. It’s incredible and is such a simple act. Remember the days when it was a courtesy to tip your hat to the ladies? Simple politeness’s reap fantastic rewards!

  2. Gosh – I forgot to tell you what a great article you’ve written! Obviously it struck home with me! Thanks so much!

  3. HURRAH!!! for the above well written and well said article!!! I arrived from Vancouver, Canada 5 months ago to make this wonderful city my new home. I have been appalled and ashamed on numerous occasions while witnessing negative comments and behaviors by some Ex-pats. If things are so “different” and “terrible” then go back to where you came from! It is a privilege, not a right to be in this country. You do not come down here with the attitude that you “have to change everything” so it is like “back home”. Respect the culture and these amazing people! Try embracing something “different” for once and you might be pleasantly surprised!!
    Have never met you Joanna but a big thank you for the article!!!

  4. Thank you Joanna for his great article that should be required reading before an FM3 is issued! We have all CHOSEN to come here and by doing so have CHOSEN to stop outside our comfort zone every single day we are here. We all need to remember that when the going gets rocky.

  5. Joanna’s excellent article is always timely wherever one travels or lives. The key word is respect. One reason for moving here is due to the incredible “warmth” of the people. I often shudder to think how Mexicans are received or even greeted in the US. It’s a privilege and an honor to live here! Thanks, Joanna!

  6. I hope this article is long retained in the archives. (I also hope Joanna will correct a small mistake regarding the word ‘palatable’ where I believe she meant palpable.)

    The social graces described in this essay are crucial to understanding between peoples. Joanna has gone a long way towards building neighborliness. Many thanks!


  7. Thank you Joanna for a wonderful article, as all have said.

    The littlest things matter in Yucatan. It seems odd, but when people remark on the “magical quality of the place” they are often oblivious to the little things that make it that way.

    When you walk into a room as a guest, it is typical for previous conversations to stop. Everyone is waiting to be introduced and greeted. But to many northerners, it may seem they’ve all taken offense to your presence. No one ever stops talking when you walk into a room north of the border. And they certainly don’t all turn and stare at you at once. In fact, it is a little uncomfortable, because we don’t understand what’s going on. Have we offended all of them by arriving? No, but the feeling is there.

    Here’s what you do, particularly if you have entered alone: Put on your best smile and call out BUENAS NOCHES! (o dia o cual quier cosa – and if you haven’t yet learned this tiny bit of Spanish to help you along, Get Started!) Then, go around the room to each person, take their hand gently and speak your name: “Soy Carlos. Mucho Gusto.” Ok, Ok, I’ll translate: “I’m Charles, pleasure {to meet you}.” With women, it is common to embrace them slightly and air kiss a cheek or two. If you know them better, you actually kiss their cheek.

    This is the key to entering a room full of local people. Seriously, if you master that, you will have gone a long way to making friends with the citizens of Yucatan.

  8. Sometimes, you may become a little tired of saying Buenas Dias o Buenas Tardes o Buenos Noches to all the people you pass and meet. Sometimes, you may think “they don’t really care.” No, they care. They are listening, even if their own reply is quiet or hastened.

    Walking down a hot dusty street one day, a couple of us had to step into the street to pass an elderly gentleman sitting on a rustic stool on his doorstep. He was quite poor, the house in rough condition like his clothing. Nonetheless, both of us said, “Buenas tardes, senor!” (Good afternoon, sir!)

    He straighted up, smiled widely and practically shouted in a surprisingly clear voice, “BUENAS TARDES, CABALLEROS!” (Good afternoon, Gentlemen!) with a strong emphasis on the “caballeros.”

    His smile and cheerful loud greeting made our day. I think ‘being recognized and greeted’ made his day a little better too.

    That’s what the Yucatan is about. Help keep the magic and learn the local ways.

  9. I think this is a wonderful and interesting story and it is greatly appreciated.

    I would also like to point out to you that the Yucatan appears to be a a very polite society, but I think one needs to point out that many of the Mexicans who have immigrated to the area in which I live in TX do not see any reason to implement or recognize cultural differences here in the United States. One particularly strong problem we have is impaired drinking and driving. I belong to MADD, or Mother’s Against Drunk Driving, as I was a Nurse Anesthetist and saw first hand the ravages of drunken driving, and statistically immigrants from Mexico are three times more likely to drive impaired from alcohol as are native born of all races here in the states. When confronted over this, the Mexican immigrants say it is a “cultural” thing. For me, basic safety and respect for human life is not something which should be overlooked as “cultural”.

    We have to have virtually everything in English and Spanish now, including all government and business paperwork, and the thing which I find the most offputting is that large groups will descend upon businesses and restaurants and they simply seem to ignore their children. The other day, we watched three children from a party wonder all over the restaurant, they climbed under the tables of other diners, and finally, one of them tripped a waiter. My children and my grandchildren are never, ever permitted to disturb other diners or run about in a business place.

    It is important to value the culture and the traditions of whichever country one finds oneself visiting or dwelling, but that is a two-way street.

  10. Gracias a todos – YL for inviting, recognizing, and appreciating EXCELLENT guest writers, and Joanna for an being an excellent guest writer. Well done Joanna!

  11. Joanna, you are marvelous! You not only wrote an absolutely perfect article, you used it to illustrate your point. You put your advice and examples in such a considerate way, just as people should couch their remarks in this very polite society. A perfect example of how to make your point but not be offensive and create ill will.

    It’s all so true, particularly the part where you are embarrassed by the behavior of a fellow English speaker. Your response was excellent, too often I just cower in my seat and try to disappear.

  12. Thanks so much for this. I have to admit that when I first moved to Cancun, I was quite the whiner. I thought I knew so much better than everyone here.

    Well, they showed me just how wrong I was over the years. Things that used to irk me bc they made no sense, I now see as perfectly logical and oftentimes better than the “American way”. (I used to HATE people being late or making me late here, but now I realize how NICE it is not to worry about the time! Just go with the flow, and life seems so much easier.)

    I also love the idea of including guests, like you said. It used to annoy me that I had to go up to everyone in a room and kiss them on the cheek. “really? is this necessary?” But 5 years later I see it as a great way to touch base with everyone at the party, and an icebreaker for meeting people you don’t know (friends of friends, my cousin’s new girlfriend, etc) When I’m visitng in the States, I have to fight the urge not to shake people’s hands or kiss their cheeks. It feels weird to just stand there and not acknowledge them now! haha

    The one thing I still fail to understand is why the coffee filters are always in the electronics section and not in the coffee aisle… but I’ll quit while I’m ahead :)

  13. Oh, and my Mexican friends did NOT like it when I cmmented on the culture’s negative aspects (as would be expected), but they were always very patient with answering my questions (which, in their situation, I might not have been).

  14. What a wonderful article Joanna wrote!

    Unfortunately, I still have 6 more years to wait before I can retire and move to Merida. I was there for a few hours in February and immediately fell in love with the City.

    I cannot wait to return to live in Mexico! I lived in Mexico City (el D.F.) for 2 years and Tampico for 6 1/2 years. Moving to Merida would be like returning home again. I love the Mexican people, its customs and a sane pace of life.

    Being courteous really takes no effort at all. It is sad that we in the “developed” countries have forgotten basic courtesy. As Ms. Vikki Hillman stated, we chose to move and live in Merida/Yucatan/Mexico. Spanish is spoken in Mexico and it is up to us to learn Spanish, not for the Mexicans to learn English! I thank God that Spanish is another “native” language to me.


  15. Incredible article…thank you! I agree with Debbie so I will be forwarding this on to ensure every expat I know is educated!

  16. After reading Joanna’s article I have to admit how appalled I am at the insensitivity of some expats whom I expect would have the social finesse to know better. When people start to complain about how things are not as well/smartly/quickly/efficiently run as they are “back home” I cannot help but wonder is something or someone holding them prisoner in Merida – are they being locked up behind the beautiful wrought iron grilles of the city and forced to live here. Well, sorry no sympathy. If things are so wonderful “back home” then why on earth are you staying here – pack thy bags and get thee to the nearest airport as quickly as possible. I have done considerable travelling and immensely enjoyed all the cities I’ve visited but I have to admit Merida is the only city where I cried when I had to leave it which I must do again end May. But, to borrow a statement from the late (USA) General Douglas McArthur, I shall return.

  17. Thank you to everyone who made comments about my article on this website and to those who sent me direct e-mails. I am very gratified by such a positive response.

    To Brenda in Texas, I did not mean to imply that Merida is the only place where people behave misguidedly. In every country we find those who are insensitive to the culture. And worse yet, to life threatening behavior…

    It has been my observation that most of those who act inappropriately do so because they just don’t think things through. A good rule to follow when you’re in a foreign country is: watch the locals and do what they do.


  18. Brenda: spoiled children are everywhere. As a Mexican, I have been in your country (The U.S.) and witnessed horrible things spoiled children do. It isn’t cultural, it is EDUCATIONAL, along with corruption, murder, money laundering… should I go on?

  19. For Brenda
    You know, this article is about the society and culture of Yucatan. It is not about the society and culture of all of Mexico, nor the behavior of homesick, lonely and oppressed Mexicans within the USA. Your commentary, which you’ve written elsewhere before, while possibly having some basis in experiences (but reasoning from the specific to the general is a logical fallacy), also smacks pretty strongly of both prejudice and scapegoating.

    If you feel that Mexicans are so … well … awful …, I am curious what your interest is in Merida, Yucatan, or Mexico, besides complaining about the Mexicans who, apparently, blight your life? Do you have anything good to say about Mexico, or do you simply wish to express your dislikes in a forum dedicated to building good relations and happy feelings?

  20. Facts versus opinions can be revealing.

    From the (USA) National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism:

    In 1990, 68.3 percent of whites, 64.5 percent of Hispanics, and 55.6 percent of blacks used alcohol (1).

    From the (USA) Department of Justice:

    The most common offense among white jail inmates was driving while intoxicated (DWI) or driving under the influence (DUI). An estimated 13% of white inmates, 7% of Hispanics, and 2% of blacks were in jail for DWI/DUI.

    University of Texas, School of Public Health, 30 July 2004

    Finally, it is important to comment on the finding that U.S.-born Hispanics are roughly three times more likely than Hispanics born abroad to engage in drinking and driving. …. it is also important to highlight that this finding goes against the common conception that Hispanics born abroad are more prone to engage in DUI-related behavior.

    A US Department of Justice study ordered by a Federal court in Arizona revealed that high arrest rates among minorities was due to high incidence of racial profiling. That Hispanic and Native American drivers were stopped and searched much more frequently than White drivers, even though a much higher percentage of White drivers were either under the influence or transporting contraband.

    Seems that Brenda’s (race-based and recent immigration-based) claims do not hold up to scrutiny.

  21. I have read Joanna’s Taking Water from the Well so she knows of what she writes.
    Like others, I, have been embarrassed by the rude behaviour and insensitivity of permanent foreign arrivals in the Yucatan. Joanna’s book, or at least this article, should be required reading for all these folks.

  22. Thanks, Joanna and YL, for this great article. My husband chose to live in Merida 40 years ago precisely because the Yucatecos were and still are such a special people — kind and honest. It’s my home now, too, and I love living here. Complain? What’s to complain about? Even with all the growth, it’s still basically the same Merida that it was when it was a small “town” because the core of it is still friendly Yucatecan.

  23. moving from England to Canada many years ago I came across the same issues from the english ex pats community . Always complaining how things were done differently in England.. I used to get furious listening ,so much so that I retaliated very strongly on one occasion by saying then go back home!From then on I refused to socialize with most of the ex pats and engrossed myself in the life and culture of Canada and it became much more re warding.
    AS to here in the Yucatan Mexico one has to learn to respect the ways and live with it ,participate and enjoy. Yes the people are heartwarming and welcoming .. remember you are a guest in their country so behave like you are a guest in someones house… respect. THank you Joanna for writing this article it was certainly needed and hope for many it will be a wake up call.

  24. Joanna! What a wonderful article. It is obvious that I have much to learn. Your commentary on inclusion at any social situation is one I had never thought about and I’m still working on my greetings though. I feel a bit uncomfortable kissing and hugging strangers but I certainly dont want to come off as cold either. I’ll have to work on that. :-)

    You gave me much to think about. Beautiful job!

  25. Joanna.
    Having lived 12 years in Mexico we know that your words and advice are so perfect. We must always remember we are guests in this country, and the people are very sensitive about comments from foreigners about their country, as people around the world all feel the same.

    Mil Gracias

  26. When I lived for a short time in Wyoming, a state where many people moved due to the oil business, I saw several bumper stickers that read,” I don’t care how you did it where you came from.”
    Says it all!

  27. Joanna, many thanks for a great article. We have lived in many countries round the world and what you say is true in all of them. One of the reasons we chose to live here is the freindliness and relaxed attitude of the people as well as the fact that youare not refulated in everything and taxed out of hand to pay for this. So we may miss out on some services (garbage collection at the beach for one) becauase of this, but as many have said, if you don’t like it here go home.
    Brenda, we have found that the kids in Mexico, at least in the Yucatan, are far better behaved than many in other countries, including USA. This is probably because families are far more important here and children are taken out and not left at home with a babysitter all the time.

  28. When upper class Yucatecos enter a room that has both workers and upper class people present, the upper class people will often only acknowledge other the other upper class people. They seem to include us gringos as part of the upper class. I think I sometimes have embarrassed all by saluting the workers present equally with the upper class.
    Thanks for the interesting article !

  29. Thanks for your comment Paul.

    There is no doubt that this society does have multiple socio-economic groups. In my experience when a person enters a room and there are people from different groups present, everyone is acknowledged with at least a nod; then peers greet one another.

    You do not need to feel emarrassed if you “salute” everyone. However as you become better acquainted with people, you’ll be more comfortable “saluting” those you know best.

    You have to do what feels right to you. Personally, when I don’t know the person (male or female, upper class or not) I do not extend a kiss or hug. But if they come at me with one, I do not turn away either. My standard greeting is a sincere smile, direct eye contact and the phrase, “Es un placer” (It’s a pleasure) Things take off from there… one way or another!


  30. Buenas Noches!

  31. PaulB,

    I believe the “working class” people would leave the room thinking that you were a fine example of Felipe Carrillo Puerto’s inclusion and recognition of all peoples and that it is sad “la casta divina” continues in their elite ways. (And yes, they definitely know their history and his legacy.)

    Just a hunch from having done the same. I shake the hands of everyone: from la senor y senora de la casa, to the licensionados, to the ingeneros, to the arquitectos, to the albaniles and all their helpers.

  32. It’s a good article for sure, and very true. My wife and I are as courteous as we can be every time we visit the Yucatan and, for the most part, the locals have returned the sentiment. I believe we did run into a communication barrier, however, last time we visited Merida. We were shocked at the way we were treated from hotel staff, restaurant staff and locals alike. To this day I’m unsure what we did wrong but I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that it just happens sometimes. We’re not easily scared off, however, and once our Spanish is better we’ll return to Merida for ’round 2′. I think that there is an aloof attitude that can easily be min-interpreted as rudeness by ‘gringos’ like us. Sometimes people here in Canada are just way too effusive and ‘sorry’ for their own good. The fact that we plan to retire in the Yucatan should say enough about our unabashed love for the place and the people. It’s certainly true that a countries wealth or ‘global standing’ has absolutely no bearing on how close it is to heaven.

  33. I’m glad I don’t know any expats like those. I thought it was obvious common knowledge not to criticize the customs and habits of a country you’re visiting. I knew that before I came, and so did all the expats I know here.

  34. Buenos dias y muchas gracias!!!

  35. I am from California, USA and my parents are from Mexico so I can totally relate to cultural differences. One needs to be sensitive to other people’s cultures if they want to succeed in a foreign country. I am living proof of that. I treat others the way I would like to be treated- plain and simple. Muchas Gracias Jaonna for the great article that you have written and shared with us!


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