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Culture Shock Mexico-How to understand the cultural differences

funny sign in Playa Del Carmen This sign points to Al. No stopping on this street.

There are many cultural differences between any two countries and we want to highlight some of the things you might encounter in Mexico so you can better understand it if you are traveling around or moving to Mexico.

Some cultural difference make sense right away, some take an explanation and some just don’t make any sense no matter how much it is explained!

The more time you spend in Mexico the more you will understand things and why some things are done the way they are but until then, here is a primer to get you used to the things you might encounter. Feel free to comment below on things you have found to be different and how you have dealt with them.

Cultural Differences in Mexico

  • The live and let live culture. Mexicans can be called laidback people. Mexicans tend to not complain about other people but that means it is a two way street. For example if your neighbors play music loud one night and have friends over you might think this is horrible and you should call the police to complain. However if you played music loud one night most Mexican would just think you are having a nice night and never say anything. This concept of live and let live might be hard from some people to get used to especially if you are used to worrying about things.
  • It takes three tries to say goodbye from a Mexican. If you are ever with Mexicans and they go to say goodbye it seems it is never a simple “goodbye”. It is always followed with another comment which extends the conversation and then another comment. This is not a big thing to notice and you may not of noticed it before, but now that you know you will smile next time you see it happen.
  • Wish everyone a happy meal. For most people the international term is “Bon appetite” but it is usually reserved for dinner parties in many countries outside of  France. In Mexico it is very common to say “Buen Provecho” or just “Provecho” to anyone that is eating even if you are walking though a restaurant or enter a store and the clerk is eating lunch. This is just considered a polite thing to do. Of course if you walk by multiple people it is not necessary to say it to each individual. Most people will reply with a thank you.
  • Toilets without seats. If you are just traveling here to the Rivera Maya you may not experience this unless you go to some local area or visit a local families house. You may come from an area where seats are always on toilets and it might appear to be some mystery why so many are missing here. We have a whole article about it toilet seats here explaining the reasoning  for it.
  • Sense of time in Mexico. The reputation proceeds the boarders of Mexico on this one! Since many people know time is more relaxed and especially in the Caribbean the sense of time can come in many forms like being late often or no sense of urgency. Sometimes you might wonder how anything every gets done because everyone is waiting on everyone else! If you come from a more punctual country this might drive you crazy, but look on the good side, when you do run late, you are basically on time according to the locals you are supposed to be meeting.
  • Mexicans love death or so it seems. The view toward death is not as solemn as most other countries. This is displayed at the Day of the Dead where there is almost a festival like atmosphere. All over Mexico and Playa Del Carmen you find souvenir shops selling painted skulls, skeleton dolls and the famous Catrina figure, which is a woman skeleton in a dress. Death is not feared as much but rather just part of life and the art and culture reflect a fascination with it.
  • No news and yellow news. Most Mexican don’t pay much attention to the news. There is no nightly news channel and most people just see things in a Facebook feed. People tend to live their life and not follow international events. However local newspapers love to use attention grabbing photos to get people to pick it up and read. This is called “yellow news“. Often you will see  a photo of a car crash with victims or people that have gotten in a fight in full color photos with blood in the paper. This can seem graphic and it can make you wonder what type of place are you visiting or living in. Just remember the same things happen in all countries, just some types of photos are not show in media in some places.
  • Voice mail and communication. No one uses voice mail in Mexico and if you do leave it for someone they might not even know how to retrieve it. This follows a global trend of not using voice mail and sending a text message instead. Most everyone has WhatsApp on their phone and it is the preferred way to send messages to anyone. You can even send voice messages on WhatsApp which is a nice function when you are walking and cannot text a message. When it comes to cell phones you will see many people adding credit to their phones especially in the supermarket. The reason for this it that people can find it cheaper to use just as much as they need and not have a plan. You can add 20 pesos and up to you account at a time. For many years people only did this but now more people are switching to plans so they can get things like unlimited data.
  • Government offices, banks and all the paperwork. Mexico is often called the land of paperwork. You will need copies of everything and the requirements often change from one person to another in the same office. Service at many governmental agencies and banks is often slow but the good news is that when you get to the front of the line you are often treated with full attention like no one else is waiting. Be prepared to have lots of paperwork when in Mexico and just try not to have to deal with many offices so it eliminates the hassle. Make sure you save everything and just create big folders for all your papers.
  • Driving in Mexico. In general it is fairly easy to get a license in Mexico (without rigorous test) so this can mean drivers are not the best skilled. Taxi drivers are often ridiculed for bad driving and speeding to get the next fare. You might have to do a little more defensive driving in Mexico and look out for other bad drivers. One thing you really have to look out for is topes (speed bumps). They are everywhere, in the middle of roads, in neighborhoods, and on highways. These are self working speed guards to keep people from flying around. It takes some getting used to and for sure there will be some last minute screeching to avoid them at times. There are also some local driving customs you will have to get used to. You can read more in our Road Rules to the Yucatan Guide.
  • Spending money and living month to month. Around the 1st and 15th of every month you will notice lines outside of banks in Mexico. This is because most people get paid twice a month with automatic deposit and people go to withdraw their money. Since wages are low, people often spend all their money each month and saving accounts are not a very common thing. This monthly pattern can also effect shopping especially in grocery stores. The stores will be more busy close to paydays. Try to avoid going to the bank and shopping near the 1st and 15th of the month.
  • Forget the bank and call on family or friends. In other countries people tend to rely on banks and money more then friends and families. In Mexico the support circle starts with the family unit and is perhaps why families are so close and important. Access to credit is available but often at high interest rates. It is preferable to borrow from family and also rely on family connections to answer problems rather then throwing money at it.
  • Religion and tolerance. Mexico is a Catholic country but you might only notice it on Sunday near a church. Even though the morals and catholic teachings are observed, it is becoming more of a secular country. The younger generation is not nearly as active as their parents generation with going to church. People are generally very tolerant toward other religious beliefs and people that hold them. In more rural areas you can find a mix of Mayan beliefs and Catholic teachings mixed. This was done centuries ago to convert locals to the new church in Mexico. Today you can find many Christian faiths and some eastern beliefs being taught but more and more it is just a general being in doing good and enjoying life. Being of another faith other then Catholic will not even get an eye blink when mentioned. People are very accepting and don’t make barriors between people over religious beliefs.
  • Class and racism. No one likes to talk about this in Mexico and many Mexicans will deny that the levels of racism exist, but to outsiders this might be an obvious unspoken division in society. When it come to class, there are three levels of society. There is the “whiter” more Spanish looking class that tend to be on TV, news reporters, and in advertisements. The next class is the mix background people in Mexico that have a “Mexican” look but are not indigenous. The bottom class is the darker skin color and more indigenous people. With different classes of people there is no surprise there is racism. It is not outright but comments made might sound like something out of 1940’s southern United States. The most prejudice is against the more indigenous Mayan looking people. It is not to the level of preventing people from going to certain areas but your service in some places can be very different based on your social class or ethnic background. For tourist this is not really an issue. It is mostly wholly within Mexico and between peoples of Mexico.
  • Living arrangements and roommates. People tend to have small more basic living quarters then in other western countries. There is more emphasis on dressing nice and having money to go out. Since wages are not that high, one way to get ahead is to have a roommate and share expenses. In other countries where it would not be that acceptable to have roommates in your 30’s, it is very common here.
  • Construction methods. One of the first things you notice when arriving is the concrete houses and what looks like less then desirable construction of many areas. The use of wood in the tropics is very hard due to bugs and rot. You would think that in a hot climate people would want to insulate themselves from the heat but that is not really done here. The basic construction methods don’t provide much of a buffer between air conditioning and the heat. Once you are here longer you start to realize why things are done the way they are like building the walls and then chipping out channels for plumbing an electrical. Overall construction is very different and if you go to build a house here, learn to rely on your general contractor because knowing how things are done locally can be best in the end.
  • Spanish and speaking Spanglish. In the Riviera Maya there is a large percent of people that are bilingual or trilingual due to tourism and the mix of the Spanish and Mayan languages. Mexican Spanish is usually easier to learn then Spanish spoke in Spain. The Spanish in Mexico is also influenced by the neighbors to the north and many English words have entered the vocabulary (example: shorts). Living or traveling in Mexico can be a mix of languages and overall people are very helpful in trying to understand what you are saying or figure a way to communicate the basics.
  • Grocery store etiquette. Shopping in Mexico brings a few new things. To start with, in the bakery you need to get a tray and tongs and pick what you want. Then you get it weighed and priced. It will take a little while to find things in grocery stores because some thing have a special order them. For example if you need cranberry sauce in a can you can find it in the jelly section. Actually this makes sense because it is a jelly of sort but not what most of us would put on toast. At checkout you will usually have a bagger loading up your groceries. These are tipped and based on how much you buy. Tips can range from 2-8 pesos. In some parking lots of grocery stores you will see older men putting cardboard on windshields of cars. This is a service to keep your car a little cooler. They look for tips and will open “help” you back up so you can be on your way.
  • Spice up life. Habanero peppers are locally grown in the Yucatan and many places will have a bowl or bottle of salsa on the table for your meal. Not all food is spicy but it is always good to ask which is the spicy salsa before pouring it on your food. Don’t worry that things will be too spicy for you because even some Mexicans get upset stomachs from eating too much spice.
  • Is that price in Dollars or Pesos? $$$$ The “$” sign was actually used far before the USD was made and has been a sign for the Mexican Peso. It can however be confusing to see both Mexican Peso denominated merchandise and USD prices with the same sign. But since the exchange rate is so much you can usually figure it out.
  • Tipping in Mexico. Mexico follows the pattern of tipping at restaurants in the United States sort of. For a basic restaurant that might cost under 80 pesos you might not leave a tip. For sit down dinner restaurants you normally leave 15%. Small tips go for the people that bag your groceries and if someone waves you in and out of a parking spot. Tipping in a taxi is not normal and only for special services would you tip at a laundry mat.
  • Drinking the water and how the water system works. The first thing people tell you when you say you are going to Mexico is “Don’t drink the water“. The truth is there is just a different type of water system in  Mexico. The water in your home is just for washing and purified water is bought and kept in large containers usually in the kitchen. It is not that the water is very polluted,  it has more to do with the heavy mineral levels in the local water. It is also prevents you from using drinking water to flush your toilet. The two water systems are separate. This makes since once you think about it. See our article on how the water system works here.
  • What Mexicans do on Sunday. Since most people in Mexico work 5 1/2 to 6 days a week, the one day off is very important. Sunday is the most common day off. This means that it is usually spent with friends and family. Picnics, beach time or going to the mall is all very common. You can read about one popular beach where locals go on Sunday here.  You will notice that streets will have less traffic and some businesses are closed. You will find cenotes, local beaches, movie theaters and malls all busier on Sundays.

beach in Playa del Carmen Mexico

  • Complain but don’t do anything to change it. There is an expression in Mexico about Mexicans and politics, “Everyone complains one day a year and then is quiet for the other 364 days“. This is kind of a true statement. Many people complain about political leaders, jobs, and things in life but that is about all. There is no action to change things. If you have friends that are Mexican you might notice how it seems they complain about things but it seems frustrating to you that there seems to be a lacking motivation to change things. This might be due to the fact that things like job opportunity and a spirit of grass roots political movements is not common in Mexico. Many people just accept things as how they are and focus in living there life as it is.

We hope this list helps you get over the culture shock of being in Mexico. Do you have other things that shocked you? Let us know in the comment section below. We would love to hear from you.

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