Though you’ll notice different attitudes and customs throughout the country, Mexicans are generally charming, courteous, and polite. Even in casual encounters, Mexicans generally address each other with formality and respect. While good manners are universally appreciated, Mexicans understand that foreigners may not understand the country’s codes and customs. If you make an effort to be polite, show patience, and smile, you’ll generally be appreciated in Mexico.
Terms of Address
Most English speakers find themselves a bit daunted by the use of ‘usted’, uncertain of when it is appropriate and when it is overkill. When in doubt, you can always err on the side of caution by using ‘usted’ with anyone other than children and close friends.
Mexicans are polite and formal when interacting with people they do not know well. When speaking to an elder or to someone with whom you will have a professional relationship, it is customary to use the formal pronoun usted instead of the informal tú. Most English speakers find themselves a bit daunted by the use of usted, uncertain of when it is appropriate and when it is overkill. When in doubt, you can always err on the side of caution by using usted with anyone other than children and close friends.
When addressing someone you don’t know well, it is common practice to speak to that person using a polite title, such as señor for a man, señora for a married or older woman, and señorita for a young woman. When speaking with a professional, Mexicans may also use the person’s professional title, such as doctor or doctora (doctor), arquitecto (architect), or ingeniero (engineer). The title licenciado or licenciada is often used to address a college graduate, as a term of respect. In addition, the term maestro, which means both master and teacher, can be used when addressing a skilled tradesman or a teacher.
When greeting someone in Mexico, it is customary to make physical contact, rather than simply saying hello. A handshake is the most common form of greeting between strangers, though friends will usually greet each other with a single kiss on the cheek or a quick hug. The same physical gestures are repeated when you say good-bye. When greeting a group of people, it is necessary to greet and shake hands with each person individually, rather than address the group together. Yes, it’s time consuming, but you’ll need to individually say good-bye to everyone in the group, too.
Even in big cities, Mexicans will often treat each other with respect and courtesy. If you need to squeeze past someone on a bus or reach for a tomato over his shoulder at the market, it is customary to say con permiso (with your permission). If you accidentally bump into someone (or do anything else that warrants a mild apology), say perdón (sorry). It is common courtesy to make eye contact and greet the salesperson when you enter a store, as well as to greet other diners in a restaurant when you enter. Commonly, Mexicans will say discuple (forgive me) before asking a question of a stranger.
Table Manners and Tipping
When you are sharing a meal, it is customary to wish other diners buen provecho before you start eating. Buen provecho is similar to the well-known French expression bon appetit, and it generally means “enjoy your meal.” If you need to leave a meal early, you should excuse yourself and again wish the other diners buen provecho. As in most countries, it is customary to wait for everyone to be served before starting to eat. Finger foods, like tacos or tortas, can be eaten with your hands, even in restaurants. If a meal is served with tortillas, you can help yourself to the basket in the center of the table. Same goes for salsa.
When dining out with friends or acquaintances, Mexicans very rarely split the bill. Usually, one of the parties will treat the others. If you were the one to invite a friend or business associate to a meal, you should also plan to treat. In a restaurant, waitstaff receive a tip of 10–15 percent on the bill, though foreigners are generally expected to tip on the higher end of the scale. In bars, a 10 percent tip is standard. A customer may choose to leave a smaller or larger tip based on the quality of the service, but tipping is obligatory.
Negotiations and Agreements
Mexicans like to please, and, as a result, they are often reluctant to give a negative or unpleasant response. For example, if the mechanic doesn’t think he can fix your transmission, he is unlikely to tell you so right away. You may not hear the full truth until the next day, when you come to pick up your car and learn it’s time to buy a new transmission. As a result, foreigners occasionally perceive Mexicans as evasive, misleading, or even dishonest. However, the motive isn’t deception, but the desire to avoid unpleasantness. Certainly, it can be frustrating to those who’d like to get a straight answer right away, but you’ll only complicate matters further by becoming excessively angry when the truth becomes clear.
Mexico has a well-earned reputation for running on a slower clock. Certainly, there is less urgency in Mexico, and it is not considered excessively rude to arrive tardy to a social engagement. In fact, guests are usually expected to run about a half hour (or more) late for a party at a friend’s home. However, when it comes to doctor’s appointments, business meetings, bus schedules, or any other official event, punctuality is just as important in Mexico as it is anywhere else.
Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Living Abroad in Mexico.