Courtesy in Mexico is very important. The way we behave as travelers in any country has a lot to do with the quality of our overall experience. Knowing a little bit about the customs and expectations of courtesy in Mexico will help you make friends, avoid misunderstandings, and have a great trip. Mexico has an inherently courteous culture. Here are a few things you should know before you go.
- When you enter any small business, a friendly buenos días or buenas tardes to the proprietor or attendant really helps establish a friendly basis to transact business. Don’t worry; most stores in Mexico are not interested in trying to pressure you into buying something and they’ll be glad to let you browse in peace. They’ll also be glad to help you if you have questions. When you do have a question, a quiet perdón… is a very courteous way to get someone’s attention.
- Shake hands with both men and women when you are introduced to someone for the first time. Avoid big bear hugs. That’s for family.
- Back about 20 years ago, when entering a smaller restaurant, it was very common to say provecho (enjoy your meal) to any table you passed by on your way to your table. The proper response is a simple gracias. It’s not nearly as common now but if you’re in a small town, you might want to keep it in mind.
- This next one is not very common in the larger cities anymore, but in small towns, if you have to pass through a group of people, let’s say on the sidewalk, it’s considered really impolite if you just silently barge right through. As you start to move through the group, try smiling and saying Con permiso (with your permission). The response is usually propio (here it means “of course”). This is a very nice thing you can do and it’s considered churlish if you don’t.
- Mexicans consider burping audibly to be the height of rudness. It’s right down there with passing gas. Avoid this.
- Take your time! Mexican culture is changing rapidly but in general, Mexicans are much more relaxed than their northern neighbors (that’s us). Showing a lot of stress, irritation, or anger, is sure to upset people and you’ll have a much better day if you just take a breath, relax, and enjoy your vacation. It’s a vacation, remember? This is especially true in restaurants. Your idea of quick service might not be the same as your server’s.
- Do not photograph indigenous people without their permission. They don’t like it and will tell you in no uncertain terms what they think of you if you do. The response is so uniformly negative that I completely avoid this. I know those handmade native dresses look fabulous but avoid the temptation. It is possible if you’re observing some sort of native crafts or dance exhibition to take photos but always ask first, just to be on the safe side.
- If you’re having some sort of misunderstanding with someone, keep your voice soft and pleasant. You’re just going to make it worse if you start raising the roof.
- Beach towns have become much more relaxed about skimpy dress than in the rest of Mexico but elsewhere, Mexicans tend to dress conservatively. Especially in the small towns, a show of lots of bare skin is probably not going to be appreciated. To avoid offending local tastes, men should wear shirts, women should wear clothing that is not too revealing. This is especially true for visits to churches, museums, and when eating in restaurants. Also, Mexicans dress up a bit when going out to dinner in a nicer restaurant. That generally means casual but no messy t-shirts or flip-flops.
- How about trying out some of your high school Spanish? Don’t remember much? ¡No hay problema! Everyone can say buenos días. No one is expecting you to carry on a complete conversation but a cheery “good morning” in Spanish says a lot about you.
- Bargaining in the local markets, especially for handicrafts, is an understood tradition in Mexico. But don’t insult a vendor by offering a ridiculously low price just because you’re not really interested in purchasing it. Most of the tourist-oriented stores are not going to bargain with you; the prices are set. But the beach vendors and little stalls are definitely worth taking a try. Here’s a tip. Ask yourself how much you would pay in the U.S. for the same item. You can certainly offer a little less than that. Remember, this is a polite discussion about the value of an item. Don’t get irritated. If you’ve bargained a bit and the merchant won’t sell something for the price you offer, simply thank them and walk away. You might find they accept the price you offered. One last thing; if you offer a price and the price is accepted, it’s considered super-bad form to change your mind. You’ve made verbal contract and you need to honor it.
- Tipping works just about the same in the U.S. as it does in Mexico. One difference; at the end of your stay, it’s common to leave a tip for the person who cleans your room in a hotel. Probably about a dollar or two per night is sufficient. It’s best to give the money directly to the person rather than leave it on the dresser.
So there are some ideas for you. Most Mexicans are very understanding if a foreigner isn’t totally versed in social customs so you don’t have to be constantly on guard but if you remember some of these tips, your actions will always be rewarded with a friendly response. Try it! You might just make a new friend.