Mind Your Manners

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A few subtle shifts in speech and attitude will help you get along. It’s a busy morning in the Zocalo and folks are lined up five-deep to get their newspapers. The young woman is tall, blond, and obviously not a native Oaxaqueña. When she reaches the man selling newspapers she pulls out a telephone card. Holds it in her hands and says, quite loudly in English. “Give me one of these.”

The newspaper vendor pulls out a phone card and the young woman proceeds to hand him a 20 peso bill. He takes the bill in his hands turns it over once, turns it over twice, and appears to be memorizing the serial number. The young woman squawks, “There’s nothing wrong with my money.” Ah, but in Mexico, along with a healthy respect for the peso, there is an equally healthy respect for good manners. And from the moment the young woman stepped up to the counter she was, in native custom, and this is the custom we care about, extremely rude. In a country where not everyone has running water, or even a high school education, how you comport yourself and behave towards others has far more importance than what kind of car you drive. At least in the day-to-day conduct of business.

Hello and Goodbye

Many of us arrive in Oaxaca knowing little Spanish. The culture shock of being in an environment where you can’t even read the street signs can be disorienting. But the fastest way to get your feet on the ground is to start to learn the little niceties. This means getting down your Hellos and Goodbyes and Please and Thank-you. Also a fine How are you doing? Is the perfect way to get your feet on the ground. Even if you don’t have enough command of the language to ask the newspaper vendor if he has a telephone card for you. Everyone should learn how to say please – por favor. And thank-you – muchas gracias. You can never go wrong with either phrase.

In the marketplace

You’ve read in the guidebooks that you should be prepared to bargain and bargain hard for the goods that you want. But before you get into a head to head negotiation, first recognize that once that negotiation has started it is presumed to end with your purchasing said item. Unless you seriously want that lime-green rug with the pink flowers on it, don’t start bargaining. Many gringos, early on learn the phrase, “no me gusta”, which means “I don’t like.” The rug seller, tortilla lady, huipil weaver, or face painter, does not want to hear that you don’t like what it is they are offering. Don’t ever use the phrase “no me gusta,” in a restaurant or in the market. What you really mean to say is that you really, really like that lime-green rug, but it just doesn’t go with your current decorating scheme. In other words, it’s a really beautiful rug, but just not for you. The Mexican economy is as bad as in many countries of the world, be aware and do not dress fancy to visit markets. Do not wear gold earrings, or in general gold jewerly Take only the money you might need and do not take credit cards or passport with you in the market or in little towns.

A World where “Fatty” is not an Insult

You are in the marketplace along with half a million other folks and just trying to move along. The man in front of you weighs all of 400 pounds and you watch as he is approached by a friend who throws his arms around him, kisses him, and cries, “Gordo, mi amigo!” Try getting away with calling your Aunt Thelma, “Fatty” at the next family reunion and chances are you won’t get a warm response. In Mexico people call it like it is, and “Fatty, Skinny,” and everything in between are accepted terms of endearment. In the market, when a seller wants to get your attention chances are they may call you white girl, or white boy, don’t take it as an insult. They just want to make sure that you know who they are.

Court and Spark

If you are a woman and traveling alone, even if only for a taxi cab ride, chances are you may be in for a little bit of romanticizing. The Mexican people are romantics at heart, just watch any telenovela for fifteen minutes to catch a glimpse of imagined intrigue, and there is a certain courtliness to their attentive displays of affection. “Linda, guapa, chica,” don’t take any endearments as such either seriously, or as offense. However, if some barracho, (drunk) is crude enough to make a grab for you, it is perfectly acceptable to act highly offended. North American and European men need to know that a mild flirtation with a Mexican woman is not out of the question, just don’t expect too much, too soon. Oaxaca is still a very conservative environment. So despite the up-to-the-minute fashions, bared navels, and piercings, there is a more traditional sense of morals at play here.

In the end, one of the best ways to acclimate yourself to your environment is to take some Spanish language and culture classes. Mastering a few simple phrases, working on increasing your ability to conduct yourself in society will reward you with the opportunity of gaining a deeper insight into the rich Oaxacan culture. You can fill your suitcases with pottery and textiles, but the kind of genuine friendships that arise through communication take work. If you don’t have the time for studies, then by all means, master the phrases that allow you to get through the day, along the way you’re sure to win some smiles.Mexicans are very sociable with visitors, they love to give and to receive. -Cariño quiere cariño- If you recieve love, you have to give love in return. If they are nice to you, you have to be nice to them.

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