Your short-term mission trip is an amazing opportunity for lessons in cross-cultural relations. While anyone engaging with other cultures should approach any new experience with a learner's eye, this is particularly true when going to another country to serve alongside the local community.
Sherman Pemberton, former missionary to Zimbabwe and former professor at Hope International University, trains teams that travel all over the world, including new Amor staff. He created four basic principles (what we at Amor call Pemberton’s Four Laws) from which to start any cross-cultural relationship.
It’s not wrong, it’s just diﬀerent. We are naturally ethnocentric, meaning that we often have a cultural bias towards what we are used to. In short, we believe the way we do things is the “right” way. This begins within our family culture and extends to cultural ideologies. I’m not saying you are wrong. I’m saying that when engaging other cultures you consider that the other is simply different.
It doesn’t matter why, it only matters that. While we encourage you to ask questions (you are a learner after all), as someone who comes to support the long-term mission the local community is already involved in, you need to trust that there is a reason behind the way things are done in this new setting. Besides, trying to understand all the intricacies of the culture during your short-term mission trip is not feasible.
Never assume. Don’t let preconceived ideas shape your experience. When you experience something (sight, sound, smell, etc.) that doesn't sit well with you, don't assume you know the reason for it.
Always look for alternative interpretations and ask more questions. The ﬁrst or most obvious interpretation is often not correct, especially in a cross-cultural context. Ask more questions, learn more about the situation, and you will have a much better chance to learn the context of why things are a particular way.
Having said that, read the following Mexican customs to try to help you navigate those interactions during your next mission trip to Mexico. Please read the following using the aforementioned principles.
In the United States, and elsewhere in the Western world, being succinct, efficient, and direct is highly valued. Mexican communication is often more subtle. While it might seem like a waste of time for you, rushing through an interaction could make you seem obnoxious. It is also the reason why a lot of conversations might be confusing, even when you speak fluent Spanish.
In fact, speaking in puns is a favorite in Mexico and transcends social stratification (many are politically incorrect by American standards, but they carry no ill intent).
Mexican people are in general warm and affectionate, especially among family and friends. However, you should be more reserved and don’t assume you should hug or kiss anyone on the cheek. A good handshake upon introduction should suffice. However, expect to be hugged and kissed upon saying good-bye (we make friends very quickly).
“Please” (Por favor) and “Thank you” (gracias) can make the difference regarding how you are perceived, even if you don’t say anything else in Spanish. And if you do speak Spanish, use the formal “you” pronoun (usted vs tu) until invited to do otherwise.
Mexico is still very traditional in many respects. Hierarchy, Machismo (the display of overt manliness), Catholicism, and family are pillars of the culture:
What does that mean?
Address the man of the house first for any question if he is available, especially if you are a male. Approach them first before interacting with children, women and neighbors.
Wear modest clothing.
Families are probably larger, and extended families are as important as the nuclear family as it provides a sense of stability. Mexicans consider it their duty to help family members.
Mothers, while greatly revered, often delegate to their husbands, even if they are the breadwinners.
Lastly, food is very important for families. Even those with little to share will often prepare something for their guests. It’s very impolite to reject their offer. Be gracious and thank them. If possible, please eat the food.
If all else fails and you don't remember anything else from this post, remember - It's not wrong, it's just different.