Mingling in Mexico
If you’ve traveled a lot, you probably have a funny story or two, like the time you intended to order a stuffed apple but got a pregnant porcupine. It makes for good storytelling when back home.
The same could happen in Mexico, of course, but keep in mind, Mexicans are generally a polite bunch. They’ll probably double check before bringing the porcupine. They understand you’re from somewhere else, and appreciate, even admire, that you are trying to learn a bit about their language and culture. Most all you meet will be tolerant when your accent lands on the wrong syl-LA-ble, or you commit shocking grammatical errors, or when you highlight your cultural idiosyncrasies.
What’s more, as you know, Mexicans have a special connection with the United States. Many have family who are US citizens, too, some have had families in places like California from even before it was part of the United States. So they know a bit about you and they like you.
Here are a few tips about Mexican customs I hope will help you feel even more confident and comfortable mingling with the locals on your next visit to Mexico. Keep in mind, these tips are mostly for travelers, rather than tourists, by which I mean folks who want to discover a little more about Mexico, as opposed to those who are visiting only for the nice weather but in every other way want it to be just like home (for more on the difference be sure to read this article by Mexico Today Ambassador Lisa Coleman). Mexico accepts both types.
Language and Communication
If you have a tin ear for languages and think your limit is two phrases, then learn these two most powerful phrases in Spanish: “por favor” (please) and “gracias” (thank you). For reasons too deep to go into here, they are the oils that lubricate Mexican culture.
One other thing you should be aware of, and will probably notice, when you are in a crowded space in Mexico, like a restaurant. Folks generally speak much more quietly than we are accustomed to in the United States. If at first you find this disconcerting, give it time, you will come to appreciate it I think.
A brief word about attire. Of course in beach towns things are naturally a little more casual, but in the rest of Mexico, folks probably dress less casually while going about their daily business than we do in the United States. For example, errands to the store still call for shoes rather than chanclas (flip-flops). Also, sweatpants are generally too casual for almost everything, save for the gym or around the house. And, while I get that pajamas are very comfortable, unlike sweatpants, they won’t do, even in the gym, so best not wear them in the street.
Eating and Food
Many foods thought of as typical Mexican dishes- tacos, burritos, enchiladas, and the like- are what Mexicans call antojitos. For most Mexicans these are not everyday dishes, but are usually associated with special celebrations. Of course, you probably know Mexicans celebrate a lot, so you are likely to see these foods when visiting, but a typical Mexican meal on a normal day, at least where I come from, is more likely to start with a brothy soup or a rice dish, followed by beans, cooked vegetables, and some meat or fish either in a sauce or grilled. Guacamole, rather than a dip for chips, is also a common side dish next to the rice and beans.
Which brings me to another important point. This main meal, as I have described it, usually happens between 2 and 4 in the afternoon. Some Mexicans return to work afterwards and work into the early evening as I often did. A typical meal schedule in Mexico might look like this:
Desayuno-Breakfast 7 am
Almuerzo-Lunch 11-12 noon
Comida-Dinner -3 pm-The Main Meal
Then, usually, either:
Merienda-Light Snack 8-10 pm- Something light, like a sweet bread pastry (pan dulce) with hot chocolate.
Cena-8-10 pm Something light like but more substantial like a taco or quesadilla
But sometimes both!
Chips and salsa do not adorn the center of every table in Mexico. (I’d never seen it until I went to a Mexican restaurant in the United States.) If they are there, it may be simply to make you feel more at ease. If you would like water, you need to ask for it and it will usually come without ice.
A funny thing can happen in different cultures: In one, a behavior may seem rude, while in another, it is considered polite. It’s all about intent and cultural values. The restaurant server’s behavior is a perfect example. I want you to know you are not being ignored if your server doesn’t rush in each time you put your fork down, nor has he forgotten you if he fails to deliver your check within two minutes of your last bite. In fact, to do either would be considered rude. In Mexico, hospitality requires that you not be rushed out with your last gulp. So when you would like the bill, simply ask for it. Just remember to say, “la cuenta, por favor.”
Just think how civilized it will be to sit and chat in an outdoor cafe for as long as you would like... in a plaza ...in a beautiful pueblo...in Mexico.