One thing most expats love about this country is how open, welcoming and friendly people in Mexico are. Conversations are easy to start and maintain, and you will rarely get that “why-are-you-talking-to-me” look you might expect in other “colder” cultures. Mexicans are curious about foreigners and seem to genuinely want to know about us.
Even rabble-rouser-looking youth will respond automatically to typical greeting prompts with good manners. It is practically an instinct as natural as Americans saying “sorry” when we bump into someone.
Walk down the street in Mexico, and chances are you will be greeted with a friendly “buenos días” or “buenas tardes” as you go…especially if there are not too many people around. As a general rule, the more crowded the place, the fewer greetings you will get, unless someone is trying to get your attention.
The same goes for walking into a store, a restaurant, an office or a school. A simple “hi” will not do, and a “gracias” is expected as you leave. It is also possible you might only get a simple nod of the head and slight smile. Still, it is an acknowledgement.
I often think of an anecdote from a friend who had studied in Germany at the same time I was in Mexico. She said that several Germans had commented to her how strange they thought it was that Americans smiled at everyone. They thought it made them seem simple (in the worst sense of the word) and perhaps sneaky.
I also knew several Eastern Europeans who have said they mistrust consistent smilers, assuming they were making fun of them or trying to con someone. Needless to say, these might not be the best places to try to strike up conversations with strangers. And if you are like me and smile like a doofus most of the time, Mexico is probably a much better fit for you.
Every country, or even region, seems to have its own personality. The Japanese are timid and would rather shoot themselves in the foot than insult someone. The Irish are passionate and hot-tempered. Brazilians are libertine party animals. These are stereotypes of course, but in the end all stereotypes originate from something.
The Japanese really do have the most polite indirectness worked into the fabric of their language. The Irish have had to fight, a lot, just to live, and in rather harsh conditions at that. Brazilians are world-famous for their extravagant Carnaval event and possibly the most fun dance alive, the Samba.
I am a big fan of the Myers-Briggs personality test. The basic premise is that there are four sets of core personality traits that we all have:
1) Extraversion or Introversion: Do you focus on the outerworld or your own inner world?
2) Sensing or Intuition: Do you prefer to focus on the basic information you take in or do you prefer to interpret and add meaning?
3) Thinking or Feeling: When making decisions, do you prefer to first look at logic and consistency or first look at the people and special circumstances?
4) Judging or Perceiving: In dealing with the outside world, do you prefer to get things decided or do you prefer to stay open to new information and options?
These combinations produce 16 basic personality types. The website 16personalities.com does not give the official Myers-Briggs test (you have to pay for that), but it has been collecting data from test takers all over the world in an effort to identify the most prevalent personality types in specific places. If you guessed Extroverted, Intuitive, Feeling, and Perceiving for Mexico, by the way, you’re right!
I was surprised to find, after taking it again this year, that one of my core personality traits, introversion, had apparently transformed (just over the line, perhaps), to extroversion. I feel certain that living in Mexico has been one of the key reasons for this transformation.
Why? Well, you simply have to be a bit extroverted here to get by. As a rule, alone time is not highly valued, and many errands that can be performed remotely or automatically in the States still require face-to-face interactions here. If you need gas for your car, you tell the attendant how much you want and either accept or refuse other services. There is no self-service check-out at grocery stores, and you must ask for what you want at pharmacies, paper and craft stores, and the market. Hiding behind your shyness is simply not an option.
Mexico also consistently ranks high on several global Happiness studies indices that are conducted annually. This is surprising to many and even a bit counter-intuitive, as inequality and corruption are sky-high, security is low and crime often goes unpunished. So what makes Mexicans happy?
According to the World Happiness Report, conducted each year by the United Nations, Mexicans reported their highest level of satisfaction in the area of social support. The country unsurprisingly also scored well on key attributes like freedom to make life choices and generosity. Mexico ranked twenty-third out of 156 countries in the study.
Another study, The Happy Planet Index, which measures four factors: Wellbeing, ecological footprint, life expectancy and inequality, ranked Mexico second out of 140 countries, outperforming both the U.S. (108) and Canada (85).
Another clue is the OECD Better Life Index, a survey of the importance given to key happiness factors by citizens of 36 member countries. It reported that Mexico ranked civic engagement, health and life satisfaction as most important.
Most Mexicans grow up with their extended family around, so become accustomed to interacting with lots of people of all ages from the start. Call me biased, but I think this is one of the few true mandates regarding how humans should live: in communities, not in isolation, and certainly not ordering pizza over the Internet so you do not have to talk to someone on the phone.
Relationships are important in Mexico in all areas of life, including in ones they perhaps should not be. In a country where corruption is embedded in most institutions, good rapport with the person who is supposed to help you can mark the difference between getting your ridiculously high water bill back down to where it’s supposed to be and getting it turned off (true story, which happily ended in a reasonable bill and a gift of cookies). If there is one lesson people have learned well here, it is that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
Another plus about the Mexican personality is that it is generally accepting of human imperfections. This tolerance is especially noticeable when it comes to punctuality (or lack thereof), but also when people simply cannot keep their word for whatever reason. Things that people in other countries would have written off immediately are understood here to simply be part of what it means to be a person.
An easy sense of humor and love of laughter also help. In many cases, the jokes would be disturbingly dark if they were not told with such light-heartedness. One of my favorite memes, which I saw recently, had two panels: the first was of a man looking depressed, sitting on his couch in the dark holding a bottle. It read (translated from Spanish): “At first I was like, ‘Life is meaningless.’” The second panel was of a young, good-looking enthusiastic man with a big smile and thumbs up sign, and read: “But then I was like, ‘Life is meaningless!’”
The Mexican people have got it right: enjoy each other. Simple as that.