Tuesday, January 11, 2011

When Si Means No

Navigating a new language in a country not your own is difficult to say the least. Sorting out a new culture along with the language can be frustrating. What do you do when you arrange to meet someone at 4:00 PM let's say and they show up at 4:30 or 5:00, as if there was no difference?

Welcome to Mexico!

We're having a good discussion about the ins and outs of communicating and language in Mexico, trying to sort out the subtle signs that indicate a cultural difference, over at the ESL Cafe.

I wrote:

One of things I think is difficult to get used to arriving in Mexico for the first time is the cultural cues in communication that tell you what a person is really telling you. Little things like ahorita to tell you to wait awhile (or dismiss you) or how to schedule a meeting when time is flexible.

So what are the cues - verbal and non-verbal - that tell you what to expect?

In a job context, I can think of some English phrases we use to be polite, or to dismiss someone 'nicely'.

Q. Hey boss, how about a raise this year?
A. Let me get back to you on that or I'll look into it

After 10 years here, I still don't have it all down to the science of Mexican, though I can spot a lot of hidden meaning. Ideas?

EP responds:

I think I'm at the point (after nearly 6 years here) where I accept the way things are done here, and even do those things myself. I may not like certain things (like lateness or that annoying signal for 'wait a second') but I don't get offended anymore. Time is not used in a productive way in Mexico, and probably never will be.

fieldsofbarley adds:

Yes, I was thinking about this the other day. When I first arrived the "si-no" issue pissed me off big time, as well as the lack of formality (you make arrangements to meet with someone, then they cancel at short notice).

Mexican Spanish is full of "subtleties" like these. I´ve also noticed the way people start asking questions: "no tendria...?" (wouldn´t you have...) or "le molesto con..." (I bother you with...). It´s as if they anticipate a negative answer and they try to mitigate the psychological effects of a "no".



  1. I wonder if this is a DF thing (I won't use that word that starts with ch). I find the nortenos very direct. They are however often late. I usually state "Canadian time" on things (like invitations etc)

  2. Chilango...round here, we use it with pride. ;)

    Mexico is a big place with lots of regionalisms...no surprise nortenos are different...probably heavy US influence up there.