Doing the culturally appropriate thing in our home country doesn’t always work in other cultures. Unless we understand this fact we fall into the “Ugly American” trap.
When we travel (or live) in another culture there are cultural rules that we need to learn and follow. These rules of interaction, when observed, make our communications flow easily and open the possibility of making deeper connections with others.
If these rules are violated, however, awkward moments ensue and the possibility of a successful communication or business transaction can suddenly come to a screeching halt.
We were on vacation in a mountain town in Mexico eating lunch in a local restaurant. A North American woman walked into the restaurant with a large vase of flowers. We discovered later that she was setting up for a cocktail event at the restaurant; the restaurant owner (Mexican) was standing behind the bar. The American marched into the restaurant, obviously annoyed, and turned aggressively to the Mexican.
American: “Did you get my email?”
Mexican: Responded with silence and avoided eye contact.
American: “I emailed you on Tuesday [3 days ago] because I wanted you to have the tables set when I arrived.”
Mexican: Does not respond.
American: [voice is getting louder]: “DID you get my email on Tuesday?”
Mexican: [now agitated, avoids eye contact with the American while brushing away imaginary crumbs off the bar counter.] Then, after a few more seconds of silence, he says in a quiet voice, “Yes.”
American: “Then why didn’t you answer? I needed the tables set.”
Mexican: Responds again with silence.
American: “Can you have someone set up the tables now?”
Mexican: “Yes, we’ll set them up in 15 minutes after the birthday party in the room you are using has ended.”
After the interaction, we asked the North American where she was from and how long she had lived in that town. She said she was the United States and had lived there for 10 years. She should have known better.
- What went wrong in this conversation?
- How could she have achieved her objective (of having the tables ready) without producing awkwardness and avoidance from the Mexican owner?
She was out of sync with the Mexican culture because she did not modify her behavior so as to,
- Show respect for social protocol: The American neglected starting the interaction with a greeting. In the formal Mexican culture, when two people encounter each other, they always begin: “Hola, buenos dias. Como estas?” Following that, each conversant asks some polite questions or comments about family, the weather, how business is going, before launching into the business at hand. The “bottom line” in Mexico is primarily about first establishing good will and relationships.
- Work to save face. The Mexican was embarrassed by the public nature of the confrontation. Everyone in the restaurant heard that he had not responded to the email. If the shoe were on the other foot, as a Mexican, he would not blame others like the American woman did. He would diffuse the situation by taking the blame himself.
- Communicate indirectly when making requests. The Mexican use of the subjunctive which indicates e.g. “with your permission/if you are able, can you….?”The power goes to the person you are asking, not the person making the demands. As a Mexican one does not make demands or assert power with one’s requests.
- Avoid conflict wherever possible. Mexicans have some difficulty in saying “No.” They work hard to please others so they tell you what you want to hear. They feel that their saying no will disappoint you. They would prefer to accommodate but sometimes they know they cannot.
In effective cross-cultural communication we adapt to others. We do not expect them to do things our way. We know that we can never fully behave like Mexicans nor can we perfectly mirror what they consider appropriate behavior.
But we can learn culture-appropriate behavior and do our best to show respect to our hosts.
What are your thoughts on this case study?