Culture comes from the Latin to cultivate. In social terms it means a set of ideas that influence the lives of a certain people. These ideas are values, expectations, mores; rules of conduct, education, religion, language; history and laws, which are common denominators to the members of that culture.
Culture has a deep impact on the behavior of persons, including of course the way they do business.
Many or all aspects of the behavior of a person are influenced by the culture in which the person lives. Culture, as well as body language, verbal expressions and their meaning heavily influence protocol and social etiquette. The same word or gesture may have very different meanings in two cultures.
Culture is easy to see and difficult to explain and understand. One may see diverse behaviors and different attitudes that may be judged paradoxical or inexplicable, even inferior to one’s own culture, but the underlying concepts will be hard to grasp. It will take time to understand and get used to a different culture.
Many times people assume that one’s culture is superior by definition, regardless where they come from.
One foreign student at the TEC said that she did not understand the reason why the Monterrey campus had animals, like deer, and at the same time the sidewalks were not taken care of; this was “quite a shock”.
Another student, after returning from a foreign university to Mexico talked about how inflexible were the people where he studied; “you couldn’t ask for a sandwich at the cafeteria without pickles if the menu said it had pickles”.
This superiority complex that favors one’s culture over the rest is probably the natural reaction of the lack of understanding of a foreign culture. The things one does not comprehend are ignored and regarded as substandard.
Things get more complicated when people realize that there is not one single culture in one country. Usually it is assumed that all people from one nation have the same culture. That is no so. While all Mexicans may share certain traits there are ample differences among regions in the country.
Moreover, cultures can vary abundantly in one single region depending on whom you talk to; a person may belong to a certain religious or ethnic group and possess different cultural traits from what you expect in the country, Also, very different levels of education can produce different cultures.
The matter is so intricate that concrete advice takes the undemanding form of lists of do’s and don’ts that simplify life for the foreigner. This is certainly useful, but produces insecurity in the person who tries to remember all those rules and fears to make a mistake. He will be looking pathologically for signs of disapproval and interpret incorrectly perfectly normal reactions on the part of others.
If a person does not understand a civilization and looks at it as an inferior culture, he will not be able to enjoy his stay there and most probably will not do successful businesses in that country. One thing is certain, ignoring the local culture and feeling superior is an act of myopia and will lead to failure.
If a person ignores local culture it is obvious that he will fail to be acquainted with cultural differences: he will behave as if no differences existed, and this will lead to cultural shock… and an uncontrollable desire to go back home. But if a person is capable to recognize differences in the culture, then there is a chance to manage those differences and appreciate them.
In general, when people travel to another country they do it as an intentional action; they want to visit another country and the first reaction is positive since all is new and glamorous. However, if their stay is prolonged or needs results, they may feel impatient, intolerant, annoyed, angry and incompetent.
This state has two outcomes: they may go back home thinking the whole idea was bad or they stay; and if they stay, that means they were capable of handling the differences… they enjoy it.
Actually all persons are a combination of different cultures. Through their lives persons are influenced by the cultures that exist in their families (ethnic background, place of birth), in their schools and colleges, in their religion, in their profession, in the company they work, in the city they live.
There are hundreds of variables influencing one another to produce unique individuals. And naturally, they enjoy each culture for its own sake, being able to move comfortably.
What this means is that you should avoid stereotyping and look at persons individually. If you stereotype people you may run into big problems, since your judgment will find easy explanations with no solutions. “All people in this country are lazy”, you may say and consequently become unable to do business and feel comfortable.
One group of foreign students mentioned in one of their reports that “Mexicans do not know how to drink coffee”; their assumption was that coffee should be strong, dark and with no sugar. Mexicans in general tend to drink “café Americano”, a watered down version of what they supposed was real coffee.
Theirs was an oversimplified generalization that has little use. There is no absolute standard form drinking coffee and it is obvious that tastes differ across countries. Moreover, such generalization fails to point out that there are groups in Mexico that do drink and appreciate espresso-like coffee.
The advice is simple: avoid generalizations that do not leave room for big exceptions (in the south of Mexico, very strong coffee is indeed the rule rather than the exception).
A word of advice
There might be an understandable reaction to conclude from the above that all values are relative since each culture may behave in different ways, sometimes contrary to each other. That is an erroneous conclusion that leads to moral relativism.
Values are absolute and admit no relativistic views, even if some cultures behave in a different way or deviate from the principle. Cultures have opinions on values and some opinions may be wrong. The study of cultures is not the study of values; Ethics is the study of values.
This is important to clarify, since acts of corruption, for example, cannot be accepted as valid even when they may be part of the usual way of doing business in some country. However, when no values are involved, there will be no objective standard universally accepted; some cultures may prefer strong tasting beer while other may like weaker brews. These are preferences that have no ethical substance.
Rules of behavior
Most advice on how to manage cultural differences is given with specific rules on how to behave under specific circumstances. Let us review some of the most useful rules.
1. Read something about the country you will visit and do business in.
All countries go well beyond the usual first thoughts. Germany is a lot more than beer and good cars. Mexico is a lot more than tacos, fiestas and siestas. The USA is also more than hamburgers and Hollywood. Canada is a lot more than maple syrup and a mounted police. Spain is more than bullfighting and flamenco. If you think Mexico is just that, people will notice and neither you nor they will enjoy a potential future friendship.
You do not have to be an expert. Read a little history and study a map of the country, at least. Also, by all means, learn some Spanish words; specially those related to food so you know what is pollo, pescado, marisco, res, salchicha, botana, vino, cerveza and other basic things. People will appreciate this.
2. There is in Spanish the formal “usted” and the familiar ‘tú”.
Use them conservatively and when in doubt use the formal until the person asks you to use de familiar form. When first introduced use the formal and do not forget to say “buenos días”, “buenas tardes”, “buenas noches” always. It is a good advice to exaggerate on courtesy just a little bit.
Use reference titles before names in formal situations, with the “señor”, ‘señora” or “señorita”. Many persons like to be addressed by their university title, that is, “ingeniero”, “licenciado”, “doctor” and the like. It makes a good impression to use those formalities.
However, nobody will complain if you do not and will not regard you as a savage; Mexicans are prone to forgive those mistakes in general to foreigners. The best advice is to be as formal as possible, without pretentiousness.
Remember names in Mexico as in many other countries are formed using both last names of father and mother. For example, Juan Fernández Ríos, where Fernández is the father’s last name and Ríos is the mother’s last name.
There are exceptions as always, but that is the rule. In verbal communications use “Señor Fernández” and in written communications it may be better to use “Señor Fernández Ríos”. Again, the advice is to be formal without exaggeration.
3. Machismo varies widely.
In reality it is almost non-existent among the younger generations, among the well educated and among the urban. Yes, in times gone there was a strong machismo in Mexico but recent studies show it has gone down; however, you will find traces in some situations; the older the person the more likely he is guided by machismo in some way.
Do not confuse machismo with situations in which you find married women in charge of household duties. Many of these women have made a conscious decision and most probably are enjoying their responsibilities. It is important to distinguish a voluntary acceptance of different roles from machismo as an intentional downgrading of women.
You will find fewer women in executive positions than, say in the USA, and you will have to be clever enough to tell apart different situations; many of them will imply some degree of machismo, but many will not. It is recommended to judge on a case-by-case basis.
It has been said that unmarried businesswomen may want to wear a wedding band and be sure to mention their children early in initial conversations with men, that is, pretend they are married; because aggressive machismo behavior usually stops when men learn they are dealing with a madre. Frankly, I have never met with such a case.
4. Yes, in general, Mexicans are not punctual.
Many meetings start more than 15 minutes after scheduled, even half an hour. This may be a cause for desperation on the part of a foreigner who is obsessed with time. But, again, it will vary widely. Many companies do have a culture of extreme punctuality; others do not.
In social situations, in general, punctuality is under an unwritten rule: never arrive on time. If a person invites you to his home at nine o’clock you are no expected to be there at nine, but probably a half an hour later. The rest of the people invited will arrive about that time and even later. However, if you are expected at a restaurant time is not that flexible. Get there no more than fifteen minutes late and be tolerant with others.
In business a good advice is to be there reasonably on time, always. And expect delays in the rest of the people arriving. That is life and there is very little to do about it. Nonetheless, there is a little trick you can use: very candidly you may ask the other person how punctual will he be for the meeting adding that you will be there exactly on time. Doing this in a friendly way will improve punctuality. You may say something like, “como ingles” (referring to English punctuality).
You will find the punctual ones and the not so punctual ones. You will learn this through experience with different people.
5. The usual cliché says that Mexicans are always having a party, that they always have a reason to celebrate.
Yes and no. True, Mexicans are more of the festive type, but do not expect a never-ending party in the country. This is another trait that has to be understood and lived. Mexicans tend to be informal; they start serious conversations after some time is dedicated to trivial matters and even jokes. They like to laugh and have a good time, like everybody in the world. Let us bring this to actual situations.
- A business meeting, in an office. The start of the gathering will most probably contain irrelevant matters, until someone orders the meeting to get started. The initial time will vary.
- In a restaurant the mood changes and there is more informality. Consequently much of the time is dedicated to trivialities, gossip and jokes. That is normal. Then at some point in the end the purpose of the reunion will emerge and an agreement reached.
- In an all-day meeting some time will be dedicated to informal activities, maybe a cocktail with no business content, just a good time. There seems to be clear-cut assignments of time, with the fun part always present.
But do not be fooled. Business is conducted this way and the irrelevant part is always part of business, maybe just a confirmation of friendship. The lesson is simple: be tolerant to this predisposition. The following is a real case:
When in informal situations, overall, as mentioned before, arrival time is very flexible but also ending time. There is no expected time for the informal reunion to end. If the people are having a good time, it may simply go on till very late. And expect people to have heavy doses of alcohol consumption: these beverages are part of the culture, not only wine and beer, but rum, whiskey and other hard liquor. You are expected to have more than a drink, but nobody will force you to do that; they may insist but that is all.
6. In general, I have found some obsession on the discussion about gift giving to Mexicans.
In short, you are not expected to bring gifts to Mexicans. Maybe, after a while if your friends in Mexico say they like something, it is possible to bring that thing to Mexico.
- A friend from Canada once brought a couple of cans of maple syrup. But after I told him that could not get the real thing in the country. As I thank you present I gave him a couple of cans of mole, because he said he liked spicy food.
If you bring something from your country as an introduction present, the best thing to do is to make it something small and related to where you live. One example could be small bottles of maple syrup from Canada. I have found a piece of advice saying that if a man gives a gift to a woman in a business setting, he should present the gift as from his wife or sister; I do not think that it is indispensable to say that.
But since friendship is so appreciated, I have found many cases in which the wife of a Mexican executive actually gives a gift to the wife of the foreign executive even if they do not know each other. This happens after some time.
7. Handshaking is common, very common, for both men and women in formal situations or when being introduced.
Kissing on the cheek implies more familiarity and is common among the young; women kiss instead of shaking hands. The advice here is to watch what others do and do the same. When shaking hands do it firmly and briefly, when you meet a person and when you say goodbye.
Then there is the abrazo among men who are friends; do not feel uncomfortable if someone gives you an abrazo and you lose part of your personal space. Do expect to lose that space in some cases and do no step back. Remember the warmer atmosphere, which may lead to touching arms, shoulders, and backs among men; these are gestures that may be troublesome for many foreigners.
Many cultures can be detected by the way people move and by their body language. Mexicans are experts in doing this. Certain gestures may indicate contempt on your part; to avoid this follow one simple rule: in your mind do not assume the superiority of your culture and magically your body will avoid those gestures. The following examples may help understanding this.
- One American executive was intrigued by the fact that personnel application forms included information on gender and religion of the applicant. Judging by the way he mentioned this it could easily be seen that he was implying the superiority of his country where he said those things were irrelevant when hiring.
Nobody liked the guy after that meeting. The alternative was to show curiosity and ask the reason for those questions on gender and religion. His body language would have been different.
- Once, a top executive from a European country was facing the Mexican executive of the local branch. The European started talking with a higher tone of voice, something very natural in his native country, but not here. What was in reality a friendly conversation was perceived by the Mexican as an aggression.
So the advice is simple: be natural and do not assume the superiority of your opinions or positions; you may be dead wrong. And talk always in a calm tone of voice, without patronizing the other party.
8. If a friend is someone you know and trust, then most Mexicans prefer to do business only with friends.
It does not mean friend in the regular way. Just someone you trust and understand; someone you know in advance. Even more, a friend of a friend has preference over other people. The lesson is clear: invest time in making contacts and become a business friend.
9. There are many variations, but it may be true that the decision making process of Mexicans is heavily influenced by feelings and sentiments.
Abstract thinking and applying general rules, on the other hand, may be ignored. But previous experience will be taken into account. Some executives will have problems interpreting empirical data and prefer emotional decisions; “me late”, is a familiar phrase expressing overall approval of the idea on an intuitive basis. But many other executives will require hard data to prove your points.
Also, short-term results are generally considered more important than the long run outcome. This is not surprising due to the economic crisis the country has gone through since the eighties. The decision making process will be generally slow and this is a cause for desperation in many foreigners.
In general, Mexicans have problems saying no to people; another source of despair for foreigners. When your phone calls do not get answered, take that as an indication of a no. But do not be surprised if weeks later you get a call. Or when you hear something like no creo que sea el momento, I do not think this is the right time, it may mean a no.
Please, do not send junior executives to the country, except for clerical jobs. If you want to have a decision made, a top executive is to be present. Mexicans can be sometimes highly conscious of their status and refuse to do business with minor employees.
This leads to another advice: find things that you have in common with your Mexican counterpart; it may be education, hobbies, food, whatever leads to finding a common bond that will make you similar to the Mexican.
10. The dress code is another important aspect to look at. And of course it varies from region to region.
Large urban centers have more formal attitudes towards dressing, that is, you are expected to wear a suit and tie, or a sport jacket and a tie. Your counterparts will be dressed the same way and will probably pay attention to the way you dress, especially in Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey.
If you do business in the Yucatan Peninsula, formal dressing does not require a tie, but a guayabera; and in the northeast it may mean a sport shirt (not a t-shirt). When in doubt regarding formal dressing, be candid about it and ask your friends about it. They will be happy to help you.
11. Mexicans drink beer, wine, scotch, rum, vodka and of course tequila.
Many of them are heavy drinkers, which does not mean getting drunk. Getting drunk is simply not allowed in business dealings. If you have a business lunch it will probably start after 2 PM and even later: and may last for a couple of hours, maybe more.
Drinks will be served profusely before lunch, then wine and sometimes an after dinner drink. This may be too much alcohol for North Americans and Canadians, but may be standard for some Europeans. In restaurants, bars and many other public places cigarette smoking is allowed and you should tolerate it. Mexicans are not fanatics about non-smoking.
12. While being yourself, by all means avoid feeling superior on the assumption that your country is better than Mexico.
This superiority complex shows and will be a major obstacle in accomplishing your goals.
One person commenting on Mexican celebrations said that she found “ridiculous the Day of the Dead”. Her body language and the way she talked showed a feeling of superiority that was perceived as highly negative.
She was told that Halloween should be considered also a ridiculous celebration since both had the same origin. Another person, when meeting for lunch said that he could not do business when having drinks and that he could not stand people smoking. The meeting ended after fifteen minutes in the restaurant. He left and returned home that same day.
The lesson seems clear. The main criteria for selecting a person for traveling abroad and do business in other countries relate to one simple aspect: that person has to like living in a foreign culture.