When many of us were new in Mexico we discovered it was important to learn manners unique to Mexico. Some I learned the hard way, so hopefully I can enlighten you on a few of them that might be helpful if you vacation as a tourist or decide to transition into seasonal or long-term Mexican residents.
You will initially discover at Lake Chapala that Chapala is a community more “Mexican” than Ajijic. There are fewer expatriates and fewer Fraccionamientos – a Mexican term for a housing association – in Chapala, and many homes are situated with your door the only thing between your living room and the sidewalk.
In Mexico, it is considered rude to walk past strangers without acknowledging them and worse if you don’t recognize and acknowledge your neighbors. Some more common courteous greetings are: hola (hello), adios (go with God or goodbye), buenos dias (good morning), buenos tardes (good afternoon) and buenos noches (good evening, usually after 6 or when dark).
Any business transaction is similar. Walk into the store and greet everyone with “buenos dias/tarde/noches.” If you don’t purchase anything, exit with a “gracias” (thank you). If purchasing, place your payment into their hand and not on the counter. Mexicans perceive that as a sign of disrespect or you don’t want to touch them. A transaction ends with a “gracias” or “tiene gran dia” (have a good day). You should respond with “Igualmente” (to you as well, or equally). Never use loud or angry words in a transaction, even if frustrated. Loudness is just plain rude.
What mother doesn’t love an “oooh” or “ahhh” toward their child. North of the border, as a stranger, one hesitates to touch someone else’s child. In Mexico it is OK to touch a child, but do not stare into the child’s eyes, which might be perceived my mom that you are giving the “evil eye.” A little brushing touch on the child’s cheek is the norm.
In a business relationship with a Mexican, ask about their health and how they are “como esta usted” and about their family “como esta su familia,” and then get to the business matter after the initial courtesies. Business is never first priority. It is families and people that come first.
In addressing someone for a first time, or if you don’t know their name, use “señor” (Mr, or gentleman), “señora” (Mrs, or adult lady) or “senorita” (an unmarried woman or a younger lady). Once you have a relationship established, then address by name or “amigo” (male friend) or “amiga” (female friend).
It is perfectly appropriate for a male to gently peck a kiss on an amiga’s cheek or female amigas to do likewise, or embrace forearms. Perfectly appropriate, too, is for two amigos to embrace each other and pat each other on the back.
Vendors selling wares on the street will usually initiate a conversation. If not interested, simply say “no gracias.” If they persist, just walk away saying “Lo siento, no gracias” (sorry, no thanks). You can also employ the simple hand gesture of extending your hand with the palm down and wave it back and forth with your words.
In a restaurant, the server will not present your bill at the table until you request it. If presented prematurely, it would be perceived that the server is attempting to rush you to leave. The correct way, when you are ready for “la cuenta” (your bill), is to make eye contact with your server and raise your hand with the palm of your hand facing the server and with the other hand use a finger as if a writing instrument writing on your raised palm. This signals your table is ready for la cuenta. This gesture will be appreciated since the server will most likely be serving several tables of customers.
If you want the server, or someone else, to approach your table, the “please come here” signal is an extended hand with palm and fingers pointed downward and motioned.
Also remember that folks who work in the parking lots or do valet service; who sack groceries in the store; or, serve restaurant tables, depend on tips. Many receive no salary for these service tasks. If you receive poor service in a restaurant, discuss it with an owner/manager rather than reflect poor service in your tip. The tip you leave is often split with all the servers, bus boys and kitchen staff.
And please don’t forget, even if your Spanish is not good, there isn’t a Mexican who doesn’t appreciate you trying your Spanish. Our experience has been that service received often improves when you try your Spanish. If they help or correct you, their intention is good, and the appropriate answer always is “gracias!”