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How to Navigate Everyday Life in Mexico

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Have you thought about how to navigate everyday life in Mexico? Chances are, you’re in for a bigger adventure than you bargained for. While some things will surprise you in their simplicity, others tend to leave us expats frowning in a mix of irritation and genuine confusion, palms up while we shake our heads. Think of that John Travolta “what’s happening here?” GIF that was made from the movie Pulp Fiction for an exact picture.

There are lots of fuzzy lines when you live in another country. For the most part, interpersonal issues are relatively easy to resolve. It’s the clash between what I think should happen and what usually ends up happening when my expectations for excellent customer service from large Mexican corporations meet what I now think of as simply “the wall.”

Service at small, family-owned institutions tends to be excellent. After all, most small businesses find success or failure based on their reputations, and they don’t want to get one for being bad. Though you might get a sub-par meal once in a while, for the most part they are friendly and accommodating, eager to make sure you’re happy with the service.

Dealing with larger businesses like banks, the phone company or the water commission, however, can be quite a bit trickier.

I don’t think it’s entirely the fault of the individuals who work at these places. After all, when established roles exist, people in those jobs simply fill them. Not every position is about putting your own unique spin on things, and for many jobs, doing that is actively discouraged.

Still, though. When it comes to getting anything beyond the most basic of problems solved, things can be maddeningly slow, sticky, and tricky. Does the person who’s helping me really not care about my problem?

The answer is, unfortunately, probably not.

First of all, they’re not paid enough to care. Advanced problems are above their abilities, and they’re not authorized in “the system” (whatever mysterious numbers are on the computer screen in front of them) to do anything meaningful for you even if they wanted to. Fine. Can I talk to whoever’s in charge, then?

No. No I cannot. The only person in charge or allowed to make any kind of decision or exception “in the system” that might be able to solve the issue is not available, and very well might never be available.

Dealing with banks, especially, is not what you might expect. Lost cards, huge interest rates, extra fees…be careful! The customer is definitely not always right. I’ve known too many people who have had money stolen out of their accounts and then fight like they’ve never fought before, usually over a period of months, to get even some of it back. These stories have taught me that if my Mexican card gets stolen and the thief goes on a spending spree, I’m most likely on my own.

When you do find yourself in need of help with any kind of special issue at one of these larger institutions, ask a Mexican for help. Specifically, a charming and friendly one who’s dealt with this kind of thing before.

We’d been receiving water bills for quantities that were only possible if we’d been filling several Olympic pools daily for months — as if we even had the kind of water pressure that it would require! Photos of the water meter proving the numbers were not the same as those on the bill were ineffective, as was explaining the general lack of the possibility of consuming that much in general. Logic was no match for their measuring and billing system.

So, I enlisted the help of my mother-in-law, a handsome and friendly woman who’d worked in administration most of her life, and knew precisely how to handle this type of thing. She accompanied me to the water commission, found a woman whose area was something else entirely to ask for “guidance,” and after several trips, this same woman ultimately solved my problem.

The moral of the story? Get someone who knows the ropes to do the talking. And maybe bake some cookies for everyone who helped.

Problems like this can happen in any country, but knowing the cultural ins-and-outs of the customer service culture, both on a large and small scale, can help. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s all about the relationship. Get that part right, and the rest will fall into place.

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