With all the places I have been in the past two years, I can’t help but compare and contrast things about the cultures in which I find myself. Each has their own pluses and minuses, and each has an amazing way of revealing something about the human condition and its many adaptations. And I often find a small mystery in one culture that can only be answered by beginning to understand another. Case in point: Mexicans vs. Argentines.
I noted with some frequency when I was living in Mexico the distaste Mexicans have for the Argentines. They would use many words to describe them, but it boiled down to the fact that in Mexico, Argentines are seen to be rather snobbish and arrogant, and it was quite often I would hear Mexicans complaining about how demanding and rude the Argentines were in their eyes. I never really knew exactly what they were going on about, but my Argentine friends in Mexico seemed every bit as down on Mexicans as Mexicans were on them. There was clearly a clash of cultures going on here, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
Now that I have been in Buenos Aires for a month, I think I am beginning to see where the clash is. And it is interesting to note that here in Buenos Aires, I have yet to hear a single negative word spoken about Mexicans or Mexican culture for that matter. In fact, the few Argentines who have spoken of Mexico speak in often glowing terms. This is most likely due to the very small (non-existant?) number of Mexicans that are living here compared with the much larger number of Argentines living in Mexico. (Then again, there does seem to be some real cultural animus towards Peruvians and Bolivians here, but that is a separate matter. Every culture has their own xenophobia.)
One of the things that I have noticed here without a doubt is how direct the people are when speaking. It is not uncommon to hear a grandmother swear like a drunken sailor, have people tell you directly that they are or are not interested in seeing you today, hear strong opinions of all types on delicate matters, etc. In short and in general, they don’t pussyfoot around. Your feelings might be hurt, but you know where you stand with the Argentines.
Things could not be more different in Mexican culture. In Mexico, one almost never says directly what one thinks, it is considered to be rude. I remember many times pulling my hair out trying to understand what Mexicans were really thinking. I actually moved out of my first apartment there because my roommate was so non communicative and afraid of conflict. My friend George, who lived several years in Mexico gave me the following advice that sort of sums it up. He told me that when leaving a party early, for whatever reason, you just have to lie and say “I’ll be right back”, even if you have no intention of coming back. It would be rude to just say “goodbye” or “I have another party to get to” or “I am tired”. George told me that Mexicans much prefer a nice lie to the harsh truth. And I have to admit to experiencing many frustrating planning misadventures just because people thought it rude to say “I can’t make it next Wednesday”. They would much rather agree to something and then just let it drop. Argentines, on the other hand are precisely the opposite. And I have to admit to preferring it that way. My feelings don’t get hurt very easily, and I like to know where I stand with people.
They really remind me a lot of my own family. Maybe because there are so many Germans and East European Jews here, and they have had a rather large impact on the culture, or maybe it is because of something else. In my family, we just say what we are thinking to each other, and nothing is very hidden. I like the fact that we can say what is on our minds and at the end of the day still know that we love each other. This isn’t the same thing as being rude. It is obviously important to take care with people’s feelings. But I can totally see now why there is such friction in Mexico between these two cultures. At the heart of it is a very different sense of propriety and expression.
In sum, and to put it in a kind way for each, one culture places a much higher value on directness, the other a much higher value on politeness.