Culture Shock

by Marcia at Mayan Beach Garden (November 2011)

Culture shock is a phenomenon that I have just begun to analyze. I've read reports by several psychologists who explain the factors that lead up to it, but mainly it is the effect of being immersed in an unfamiliar culture. To put it in the context of Mahahual and southern Quintana Roo, foreigners (or Gringos, as I'll refer to them in this article) may be bothered by the fact that at first they don't understand the Mexicans here and, secondly, Mexicans do not understand them. This difference has nothing to do with language but is compounded when the Gringo doesn't understand Spanish. When a Gringa (female) tries to make sense of some behavior she is experiencing, the new, often strange, behavior is interpreted incorrectly. What happens next is a feeling of social isolation from the new surroundings, despite its beauty and the Gringa begins to be critical of the new culture and begins to romanticize the culture she came from. I've passed out of the culture shock phase, but I can see others struggling. Things don't bother me so much anymore and, in most cases, I've embraced many of the differences. I don't even stress myself out any more when I'm late to something. However, the ability of a Mexican to wait in line for a very long time is something I'm sure I'll never acquire.

I've listed below some items that most people run into when they are here, some annoying and some lovely but potentially confusing:

Land of mañana. The thing that makes Mexico nice to visit and vacation makes it infuriating to get anything done. The inability to plan anything can be extremely frustrating. It can take forever to get something done. This is worth an entire article on its own, but the sooner the Gringo figures this out and accepts it, the less stressful life in Mexico will be.

Kissing on the cheek.  I could write an entire article just on this, but basically, kissing on the cheek is a charming custom where friends, or even casual acquaintances greet each other. I did it incorrectly when I first came to Mexico. No one explained the rules of kissing to me, so it took me a while to figure out what I was supposed to be doing.

A) Kissing is on the right cheek.
B) Traditionally it is practiced woman to woman and woman to man but not man to man.
C) If it is a casual acquaintance, kiss the air and just touch cheeks.
D) While some men kiss every woman, it is traditional for the woman to make the first move.
E) It isn't necessary to kiss the cheek of those you see every day, like a neighbor or employee.
F) It is appropriate to kiss someone at the time you are introduced. Here in Quintana Roo they all do it. I've been at meetings where someone arriving late in a meeting stopped the meeting while they went around the room kissing 15 people.

Provecho. I really like how people say Provecho in a restaurant. What they are saying is "Enjoy your meal." Sometimes complete strangers in a restaurant will say Provecho to another table as they leave the restaurant, especially if they have just enjoyed the meal. Replying with "Gracias" is always a good idea.

Culture of tolerance. Mexicans as a rule are some of the most tolerant I've ever seen towards other religions and lifestyles. It is not uncommon to belong to more than one church. Still, it is predominantly a Catholic culture and evidences of this are everywhere from local holidays, fiestas, artwork, love songs, nativity scenes and altars on government property, and a general celebration of Catholic ritual. It is one of the things I love about Mexico—the freedom to celebrate and embrace religion without fear of reprisal. Whether or not you are Catholic, you can enjoy the cultural festivities along with the rest of Mexico. You will notice also how quickly they embrace the festivals and celebrations of other cultures as well. Some of the cultural activities may inconvenience you, such as the annual pilgrimage on Dec. 12, and the only option is to embrace it and enjoy it rather than get frustrated.

Telling you what you want to hear.  At some point, you realize that Mexicans will tell you what you want to hear because it is polite. Transversely, if the truth were unpleasant, it would be impolite to tell you. What that equals is people telling you that things are possible when they are not, and telling you that they will make something happen which never does, or that the price will be $$ when in reality they never added $ and $ making it $$$$. I've learned not to believe the "yes" that comes too quickly. You can get mad, and they will still provide a smiling "yes" over and over again, and then never deliver. Jim Conrad, who has lived with Mexicans for many years says that if you were in their circle of friends and family, and they told you something that was what you wanted to hear, but probably untrue, you would know that about them and not worry about it. Or, if they start to welcome you into their circle, some of them may even begin to tell you the unpleasant things you don't want to hear (like my longstanding workers). But it is not polite to say something to a Gringo or stranger that is unpleasant.

Mountains of paperwork. This is a country of paperwork. A person can give his paperwork to someone and two weeks later they will ask for it again. One must save every piece of paperwork he has because inevitably he will have to produce it. Furthermore, he must verify that it includes the "stamp"—or it isn't legal in most cases. Coming from a digital society, this seems so foreign, but hey, Gringo is in a foreign country so must get used to it. And oh, by they way … that document on the wall is proof that they know what they are doing. Whether or not they have experience, if they don't have the certification, they can't get the job.

Family is the most important thing.  I once had a man tell me he didn't understand Americans. He said that in the U.S. when someone gets married, they move out of the house to get away from their parents. In Mexico, they move in with the in-laws. "Why do you want to be away from your family?" I couldn't provide an answer to that. You will also notice that they seem very permissive to their children, especially male children. They don't yell at their children; rather it appears that they let them run all over at will. If you have laborers working for you, it is common for them to bring their family with them.

Mexican helping hand. This is one of the best things about Mexican culture. If you have a problem with your car, if you are lost or just need help … someone will come to your aid. Helping someone is just part of the culture. They can't say "no" to someone in distress and I have been the recipient of their help many times. Complete strangers have stopped to ask if we needed help on the side of the road, even consulting with their friends to solve our problems. Transversely, if you are waiting for your car to be fixed, and return to find it not ready, it very well could have been that helping attitude assisting others more immediate than your vehicle.

Noise tolerance. Mexico is a noisy, happy, musical country—the blaring loudspeaker, the constant  and sometimes deafening music is everywhere. My staff can't work without music, and it has to be loud. I was attending church one day while outside the music blasted. It was hard to hear oneself think. I asked one of the members why they didn't ask them to turn the music down. Yes it was loud, but she said it had never occurred to her to do it.

Language. Even though a good percentage of the people on the coast speak English, and even though a Gringa may speak a little Spanish, the nuances of language may be completely lost on her. Think of all the miscommunication that can occur between two English-speaking people. If one person is primarily Spanish speaking and the other English, the differences can be immense. I don't know how many times I think I'm telling one of my employees to do something and they think I said NOT to do it. This lack of communication can cause you to miss a lot of what is going on. That creates a feeling of isolation and confusion.
After the honeymoon is over, how do you climb out of the depressing phase of cultural shock on the Costa Maya? Experts say to learn the language, get involved in community projects and expat groups, communicate via e-mail and phone to those in your country of origin, and realize that after the culture shock phase is over, the reason you came to Mexico to begin with will be revealed to you.

Best Wishes from Mayan Beach Garden
Mayan Beach Garden Inn - Boutique style hospitality on the Costa Maya
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by Marcia Bales