Why Can’t Mexicans Just Say No?

Because it’s not in their DNA, but here’s why they do this

Mexico is a beautiful country and its ancient culture is fascinating. Mexicans are nice and friendly, but we are not easy to understand because of our cultural heritage, among other things.

If you visit Mexico as a tourist, you will have diverse experiences, as in any other country whose culture is different from yours, but if you come from elsewhere (especially the first world), and decide to live here, your experience will be something else; no one can just transplant a way of life and keep on with it.

A foreigner has to adapt to another environment, set of values, language, food and ways of doing things. The process is not easy to handle when some of the clues to understanding the new country are hidden from you; unintentionally, but still hidden.

Once I attended a lecture about American poetry organized by a friend at the American Consulate in Monterrey (northeastern Mexico). When I got there I saw about 200 chairs ready to receive guests. I knew there wouldn’t be that many people at the lecture but as the invitation said RSVP, I asked my friend how many persons had confirmed.

“About two hundred”, he answered. Did they say they were coming for sure?, I asked. He said they did and I insisted: Did they say: “Yes, I will be there” or something else? He didn’t understand where I was trying to get at, so he called his secretary and asked her. Most of the people had said: “I’ll do my best to be there. Thank you”.

I told my friend that in Mexico, that is a way of saying “No” politely. Mexicans rarely say “No” directly to an invitation, because we feel (and sometimes think) that it is not nice to do so. This has a lot to do with our heritage. Our very rich prehispanic cultures tend to be extremely polite and respectful with others and the word “No” seems too strong and direct to them, so they would rather say something like: “I am very grateful for your invitation and although I have something else at the same hour, I’ll try to be with you on time”. We learned this as we grow up and though many of us are trying to change it, it is not easy to go against a mentality that has been the same for centuries.

Of course, he/she won’t be there at all and they do not realize that their absence  for foreigners is worse than being sincere, because Mexicans know, as soon as we hear those words, that he/she won’t be there. That is one of our secret linguistic clues and foreigners take a long time to understand it because it takes time to decipher a secret code. We Mexicans hear the same words you hear, but our interpretation has nothing to do with yours, which is logic and literal (as it should be).

If the avoiding of a direct “No” in regard to invitations is a problem, we see that problem grows bigger when it is taken to everyday life.

“Toño, so my car will be ready tomorrow afternoon?”


But the car won’t be ready tomorrow afternoon and neither will it be the day after tomorrow or even two or three days after that. But Toño will keep asking you to come back tomorrow, an action that causes despair, anger and frustration not only in foreigners, but also in Mexicans.

It is important to know that in many cases, Toño knows from the very beginning that the car will not be ready when he says, but to him, it seems rude to say the truth, so he keeps promising and promising because he knows that one of those times, the car will be ready!

When you ask someone on the street for a certain street or place, they smile and take the time to explain to you how to get there. The problem is that sometimes they have no idea what you are talking about, but they think it is impolite not to help someone who is visiting our country and they would rather send you on a wild goose chase than accept their ignorance.

Something similar happens in other Latin American Countries, but not in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay because their people are more European than in the rest of Latin America where we are more half-breed.

Carlos Fuentes, an important Mexican writer, illustrated this when he wrote that Mexicans descend from the Aztecs, Peruvians descend from the Incas and Argentinians descend from the ships.

Mexico, as any other country, has many wonderful things and many not so wonderful. It could be useful if someone tries to help you understand a little better whom you are dealing with. I’ll try to do that.