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Let’s start off with one of Mexico’s (and Latin America’s) most well-known cultural customs – throwing quinceañera parties for a daughter’s 15th birthday. While this has developed a reputation for being a bit over-the-top in recent years – and is shunned by many teenage girls – it is still an undeniably prevalent event on many a Mexican’s social calendar. Involving religious rituals and princess dresses, the Mexican quinceañera is probably something many outsiders fail to understand.
However, despite a global reputation for throwing some of the most extravagant birthday parties in the world, you might be surprised to know that the ‘Happy Birthday’ song is probably not present at any of them. That’s because Mexicans instead sing ‘Las Mañanitas’ to the lucky birthday boy or girl. So, if you’re planning on spending an extended period in Mexico, you better learn the words – there’s nothing more awkward than standing in silence as everyone else sings along!
This is a big one amongst many Mexicans and can pose some problems if you’re asking for directions, in particular. Rather than telling you they don’t know where something is, you’ll find Mexicans will instead provide a roundabout set of directions accompanied by a vague wave down the street, in what may or may not be the direction you need to go. Always ask at least two or three people in the vicinity before you heed their advice.
A strange tradition for outsiders is the constant, surprisingly formal custom of greeting the friends you run into on the street with more than just a simple hello or nod of the head. Instead, you’ll be introduced to everyone by name, before having to do a lap of hugs, handshakes and kisses (only one, and lean to the left), only to repeat this socially acceptable song-and-dance when it’s time to leave. This also happens in family homes as well as parties, to name a few instances. Charming, yes, but tiring too.
In a similar vein to Mexico’s hugging and kissing culture, you’ll definitely be privy to more than one display of public affection in your time in Mexico. It doesn’t matter if the couple is on a crowded metro, in an empty plaza or even just waiting to cross the street, you’ll certainly bump into at least one overly-affectionate pair at some point or another. Unlike many places, where they’d be stared at until they stopped, in Mexico most people are very accepting of it.
This is a classic that lands many foreigners in hot water when they delve into the world of Mexican cuisine. While some vendors will take one look at you and direct you towards the supposedly mildest sauce on offer (the assumption is that non-Mexicans can’t handle their heat), others will repeatedly assure you that the sauce no pica (isn’t spicy) when it absolutely is. Just take care if you’re not a fan of a habanero chili and take no pica reassurances with a pinch of proverbial salt.
Sticking with food, one cultural custom many visitors find odd at first is the addition of lime and chili to everything, and we mean everything; potato chips, soups, sweets and even fruit, no foodstuff is left behind when it comes to the addition of this condiment combo. As there’s literally no escaping the Mexican love of sweet and spicy snacks, it’s probably best to try and tackle it head on. As the saying goes, when in Rome…
This is a surprise even for those who speak different variations of Spanish, and is always heavily associated with the Mexican branch of the language. Rather than saying ‘¿qué?’ (what), Mexicans will always respond with a much more polite ‘¿mande?’ (pardon) instead, even amongst friends and family. This incredible linguistic politeness in Mexico is also seen in the use of ‘ustedes’ meaning ‘they’, rather than the more common ‘vosotros’. So, as well as your Ps and Qs, watch your mande’s in Mexico too!
On the subject of language quirks, Mexican Spanish is well-known in its addition of diminutives such as ito and ita to practically anything. While this ordinarily implies a sense of smallness to the object it’s added to, in Mexico this is rarely the case; be careful when you’re placing that second-serving order, because chances are that sopita won’t be a small portion at all. Alongside food, the most notorious usage of the ita diminutive is with ahora (now). Be warned, as this most definitely does not mean that something won’t take very long – quite the opposite in fact.
That brings us rather roundly onto our final cultural custom that non-Mexicans may have trouble adjusting to; constant lateness. If you’re used to arriving on time to things, whether they be appointments, meetings or just catch-ups with friends, then prepare to spend a lot of time waiting around in Mexico, as turning up 30 minutes late is pretty normal. This is not a sign of rudeness, but it can be quite frustrating if you’re perpetually punctual.