In 2008, I accepted a job to work with a non-profit organization in Oaxaca, Mexico and lived in the country for close to two years. At the time, I had previously visited the city of Oaxaca and traveled to Mexico for a brief tour. When I was preparing my move from San Francisco to Oaxaca, I did so as if I was moving to San Jose or other nearby cities. I left my job in San Francisco on Friday and started the new job in Oaxaca on Monday.
In the past when I traveled to a foreign land, I did my due diligence of studying the culture, customs, and researching extensively about my destination. However, I did very little to prepare myself mentally for Mexico. I didn’t even bother to read the Oaxaca guide book a friend had given me before my move. By then, I had already lived in different parts of South America and traveled to various parts of the continent. I was overly confident and thought that if I can survive Paraguay and Bolivia, Mexico is no big deal. I was so sure that with my “deep” knowledge of the Latin American culture and ability to speak Spanish, adapting to the Mexican culture would be a piece of cake, right? I had no idea how wrong I was until I learned it the hard way.
I came to the Mexican workplace with all of my American habits- I was blatantly blunt and direct in my communication, offered unsolicited criticism or constructive feedback left and right, ate lunch at my desk rather than mingling with the rest of the group, and was obsessively focused on achieving results and delivering work on time. Then, my guiding principle was “I came here to do my job and not to make friends.” Eight months later, I realized in Mexico I can’t do my job until I make friends with everyone. During the first eight months of working in a Mexican environment, I was tremendously frustrated by how everything I have come to know as competent in the U.S. did not have a place in Mexico. I was surprised and at times offended, when people arrive at a meeting an hour late, or sometimes they might have forgotten that there was a meeting. I was furious when people did not deliver their work on-time as promised and therefore affecting my productivity. I didn’t understand why I became the “love of my life” or “amor de mi vida” in Spanish, to the local lady who was selling homemade tamales in the street corner. At the time I thought to myself, how insincere it is for you to call me the love of your life when I am just a passerby. I was perplexed about how a native could be so offended when I slipped an ignorant comment about how corn is not as valuable as other crops in the economy. I had no idea that diminishing the value of corn is close to the equivalent of undervaluing the national identity of Mexican patriotism…..of course a native could take offense in such disrespect to their cultural identity!
El Centro, Oaxaca City
I dreaded going to work and was so discouraged by the fact that my good intentions brought so much unproductivity. The frustration was of course two ways and my employer was just as equally affected as I was. We had come to agree to end my contract working at the job because it felt nearly impossible for us to get along well and work together. I broke down crying in front of my door steps when my Irish gringo neighbor Shawn, who had lived in Mexico for over 20 years, came by to console me. He said to me “you know, this whole business of making friends with everyone in Mexico is like the lubricant and social fabric of Mexican society…. all of the chaos and dysfunctions of Mexican society can only make sense when we are nice and friendly to each other, that is what keeps everything together here.” Though it made some convoluted sense to me at the time, I did not completely grasp the profundity of this insight until a few years later after having studied the subject of intercultural communication.
What Shawn meant was that relationship building is a core value in Mexico and in order to build trust and rapport, one has to be friendly and approachable. And, in doing so one must be indirect in our communication so that we don’t express disagreement or criticism openly in Mexico. It is a very high context culture which requires a lot of relationship building within the group in order to understand the nuances of one’s communication and read between the lines of what is being said and omitted. This is in direct contrast with the American directness which requires communication to be openly explicit so that people don’t have room for interpretation of what is being said. Once I had a conversation about cultural differences between the U.S. and Mexican culture with a dear friend of mine, Meli, who is Mexican American living in Mexico City, and she used the most suiting analogy “The U.S. is a very sign culture where you can see a ‘No Parking’ sign on the same street within a couple of feet apart…. In Mexico, there are no signs and you won’t know you are driving the wrong way until you see another car driving full speed coming toward you!”
Five years later, in reflecting this experience I come to understand the risk of minimizing cultural differences. It was dangerous for me to assume that all Latin American countries share similar behaviors just because they speak the same language (in reality Spanish in Bolivia could be quite different from Mexican Spanish) and share some important values such as family. Since I mistakenly presumed that Mexico was not that different from all the Latin American countries I knew I prevented myself from being completely open minded. As a result of the close-mindedness, I became less observant and aware of the cultural differences in my environment. If I had paid more attention, how could I’ve missed the fact that it is hard for Mexican natives to say no directly and the strategy to dance around that gracefully without offending someone. Had I dismissed my judgment about the tamale lady’s insincerity by calling me the “love of my life,” I would have respected this customary greeting ritual with one another in Mexico. The cost of minimizing cultural differences to me was nine months of misery in Mexico and the gain is the new found wisdom of being open minded!
My Mexico story did not end on a sour note. In the second half of my time in Mexico, I worked with a local women activist organization promoting the human rights of indigenous Mixe women in Oaxaca. That experience was much more pleasant, after I took in my Irish neighbor, Shawn’s advice to make friends first. I became more curious about the local culture and showed a personal interest in my coworkers whom I respected a great deal. I learned to flex a little bit of my open mindedness muscle, when I found my-self in the middle of a business meeting with a group of women and men human rights activists, one of the human rights lawyers was a new mother and showed her breast openly to feed her new born daughter in the middle of her heated discussion about how the machismo culture contributes to gender-based violence in Mexico. At that time, I recall admiring the scene and was grateful to be in a cultural context that allowed for this to happen rather than judging the inappropriateness of open breast feeding in a business meeting using my American mind.
Indigenous Mixe Women in rural Oaxaca, receiving training on domestic violence.
Working alongside indigenous women leaders in the Oaxaca office.
I am closing with lots of questions to you ( yes, you who is reading from Mongolia to Senegal!)- how do you become open-minded? what do you do in order to continue to grow your open-mindedness muscle? Do you agree or disagree with the cost of minimizing cultural differences? Please share your thoughts and experiences!