The history of Mexican culture, as we know it today, spans at least five centuries, beginning with the arrival of Hernán Cortés and his troops to the Aztec capital city and religious center of Tenochtitlan in 1519. The ‘Spanish conquest’ is often mischaracterized as a purely violent takeover, however that is only partially true. From the very start the Spaniards played a complex game of diplomacy and power that involved coalition-building, interbreeding, and outmaneuvering of indigenous groups who posed any resistance. This strategy, ultimately, led to the fall of Tenochtitlan and the subjugation of the Aztec people.
One of the key outcomes was the creation of the mestizo (mixed blood) race, which has been at the very core of the Mexican identity until the present day. Colonial buildings, ancient temples and a variety of archeological sites are still abundant throughout the country and they often stand next to each other, sometimes (quite literally) on top of each other. This rich inheritance has inspired some of the most impressive modern architecture that the world has ever seen, among other cultural wonders.
After functioning as the Viceroyalty of New Spain for almost three centuries, Mexico achieved independence in 1821. But around the same time, the country began dealing more closely with the United States, and losing 55% of its territory in the subsequent decades as a result. Former president Porfirio Díaz (a mestizo himself) is reported to have said: “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States”. This sentiment has stuck in the nation’s consciousness since. Though an important economic and political force in its own right, Mexico’s culture cannot be fully understood without taking into account the long-standing influence of a world superpower next door.
Despite the terms sovereignty and revolution being integral to the national narrative, Mexican society is highly accepting of hierarchical order and centralized power (PDI 81). For the most part, people expect to be told what to do and will defer decision-making to those who are in a position of power, whether in the context of family, religion, work, government or foreign affairs.
Mexican culture is also predominantly collectivistic, prizing relationships above anything else (IDV 30). Maintaining in-group and between-group harmony is a core value, even if it comes with great personal sacrifice (it is not a coincidence that ritual sacrifice was seen as a stabilizing force in pre-Columbian civilizations). At the same time, particularly given the complex intersection of European, Mestizo and American heritage, Mexicans wish very deeply not to be taken advantage of.
There is an interesting ‘power paradox’ in Mexico. On one hand, standing out from the crowd is generally something to be avoided, mainly if you are not a power holder. Being a winner, for instance, is not a value embedded in the culture; even uttering the word ‘no’ is deemed too confrontational. On the other hand, material status is fervently sought after and shown off when it is attained, even if it exists in small amounts. Wealth (or giving the appearance of wealth) is, therefore, an enabler of individualism, a vehicle for signaling to others one’s position in the socioeconomic sphere (MAS 69), and, ultimately, a tool for shifting the power balance.
All of this creates a high context culture where there is always a lot going on ‘behind the scenes’ and ‘between the lines’. Punctuality is a matter of perspective, and the word ‘yes’ often means ‘we’ll see about that’. Paradoxically, this inherent ambiguity of everyday life co-exists with a very high score in Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI 82), which reflects the pervasive sensation of never being on solid ground - a key reason why Mexicans maintain great respect for traditions, and a focus on achieving short-term outcomes (LTO 24), including a very high tendency towards Indulgence (IVR 97).
Some cornerstones of Mexican culture
A core quality of Mexican culture that gets recognized around the world is its hospitality. And it is arguably also one of the most fascinating, as it offers a window into the country’s psyche. Though this aspect is evident in the strength of the tourism sector, it goes much deeper than that. Over the centuries, Mexicans have mastered the balancing act of being welcoming yet vigilant at the same time. “Mi casa, su casa” (my home, your home) is a well-known axiom of the Mexican mindset, and it relates back to centuries of tension between the desire to establish trade relationships and cross-cultural bonds (among indigenous groups at first, and with foreign cultures later on), as well as the traumatic stories of loss and betrayal that have become associated with enacting that impulse.
Being of Service
The collectivistic and hierarchical aspects of Mexican society are a major driver of a service-oriented mentality. This comes very natural to most natives, so much so that it is still common for people to replace the term “de nada” (you’re welcome) with “un servidor” or “para servirle” (meaning at your service) upon completing a task or introducing themselves to a stranger (as in “Hello, I’m Juan, at your service”). This behavior, however, tends to be linked to level of educational attainment, i.e. the ‘eager-to-please’ attitude is less prevalent among those with a higher academic degree, though they are still quite polite in their demeanor.
Given the century-old Spanish influence, Mexico is still predominantly Catholic and patriarchal, mainly as it pertains to government, business and the general social order. For example, ‘Semana Santa’ (Holy Week - Easter) is the biggest national holiday besides Christmas. Interestingly, however, the maternal figure is considered a critically important (nearly sacred) stabilizing force in every community. Mother’s Day is celebrated on a fixed date, and prompts big family gatherings even if it falls on a weekday. Also, the most revered religious figure after God is the Virgin of Guadalupe (“la Virgen”).
Politics and the economy
Mexico’s political and economic system are extremely bureaucratic and centralized. Mexico City alone drives almost a quarter of the country’s GDP and is amongst the world’s most productive urban centers, along with Tokyo, New York and London.
Equanimity and Longing
Much of Mexico’s marvel and struggle lies in its on-going quest for equanimity. Deep down, Mexicans aspire to live in harmony amongst themselves, with their natural environment, and with other countries. But, as it happens in any complex society, a benevolent attitude can easily be abused by others. Boundaries are constantly being tested, hence one of the inevitable consequences of this is an emotional state of mistrust, skepticism and passive-aggressiveness. Appreciating Mexican culture in its entirety requires a certain level of compassion for its people’s sense of vulnerability and longing.
The expert recommendations
- Mexico is a high-context communication culture. Allow your local counterparts the opportunity to speak and express themselves. Be a good listener and observer. Most of all, be curious. Asking open questions can yield great insights about the people and the companies you are dealing with. It is possible that they won’t be immediately forthcoming, so you might need to dig a little deeper. Be gentle, though.
- Be creative in how you ask the same thing multiple times in different ways. The truth is sometimes hard to get at, and you may get it in bits and pieces.
- Avoid confrontational or blunt language; this usually narrows possibilities and creates obstacles for getting things done.
- Mexicans tend to have a great sense of humor. Making funny remarks, telling stories and making jokes helps loosen people and establish rapport, as long as it’s done tactfully and in the proper context, of course.
If you are in the process of negotiating something, the stronger the personal connection the better. Still, be patient. Negotiations can take a long time.
Mexico has one of the most sophisticated cuisines in the world, and it represents the origin of staple foods such as avocado, corn, tomato, cacao and many varieties of beans and chiles. Sharing a big meal usually presents the ideal opportunity to lay the groundwork for a negotiation. This can be breakfast, lunch or dinner. Enjoy!
Try to identify what your counterparts really would like to accomplish and how you can be of help. The sooner you can show them that you can offer something of value, the more cooperation and reciprocity you are likely to experience.
- A leader/manager in Mexico is perceived first and foremost as the boss (“el jefe” or “el patrón”). The boss is in charge and directs his subordinates, whose main job is to accept and follow his/her directive.
The work environment in Mexico can be extremely political. On the surface, the boss-subordinate relationship may seem fairly straightforward, but behind the scenes team members are usually jockeying for position, building alliances and doing whatever they can do to get ahead and advance their interests.
Mexican culture resembles a structured pyramid with an established hierarchy. People are often concerned with getting the short end of the stick and feel the need to fend for themselves amidst a system that is perceived to be rigged in someone else’s favor. This can lead people to direct their attention to circumventing or outwitting the system (they will rarely challenge it head on).
Rank and position tend to speak louder than skills and credentials. This has evolved in recent times, especially in multinational companies, but it is still deeply ingrained in the modus operandi of Mexican business. Moving up the ladder depends on having strong connections and relationships.
The boss carries an aura of either father or mother figure. And depending on whether the company is run by male or female, the environment will shape itself as mostly patriarchal or matriarchal. One of the most complicated situations is when an organization has a mixed gender co-leadership, because in these cases the staff inevitably views them as mom and dad.
As a boss in Mexico, you should be keenly aware of these dynamics. If you wish to introduce a leadership style that departs significantly from the norm, people will need some time to adapt. Credibility may become a factor, especially if the boss doesn’t exert much authority - he/she might be perceived as weak or ineffective. Coherence may also become a factor, for instance, if people are encouraged to speak up but are then punished for doing so (they’ll never speak up again!).
On the bright side, subordinates will tend to respond very well to a leader who is willing to teach them new things, offer a compelling vision and give them the tools to do their work better and develop themselves. More importantly, designing a system that is more conducive to benefiting everyone will be perceived as a breath of fresh air, because it gives them a sense of security and stability.
At a score of 81, Mexico is a hierarchical society. This means that people accept a vertical command-and-control structure where everybody is expected to know their place. Hence, the separation between the powerful and the powerless is palpable - it can be observed in daily interactions between customer and retail clerk, teacher and student, boss and subordinate, parent and child. Being a service-oriented culture, Mexico’s relational dynamics between classes are clearly delineated, hence people in lower positions commonly adopt a subservient attitude. Status is expected to be shown and decision-making is highly centralized. In organizations, people expect to be told what to do and challenging those at the top is generally understood to be a bad idea.
With a score of 30 on this dimension, Mexico is considered a collectivistic society and its governing principle is the family. Though status is important from an external and material standpoint, Mexicans define their inner sense of worth and well-being largely on the basis of the quality of their relationships and networks of support. This principle may apply not only to relatives but also to circles of friendship, communities and work teammates. Therefore, building trust and loyalty is paramount. Additionally, Mexicans place high priority on protecting the harmony of the group. Standing out from the crowd is not as important as fitting in, belonging, and seeking safety in numbers. In organizations, people will err on the side of caution instead of rocking the boat.
Mexico scores 69 on this dimension and is thus considered a masculine society. Mexican “machismo” has been widely documented and talked about for decades, and it is still very much a hallmark of the culture. Although gender roles continue to be gradually redefined, there is still a clear separation between how men and women are expected to show up and interact with each other. There is some degree of nuance to this dimension in Mexico, however.
Mexico scores 82 on this dimension and thus has a very high preference for avoiding uncertainty. For an outsider, it may sometimes seem as if this is a country where laws are mostly recommendations (just drive around the streets of Mexico City for a day); however, Mexican society takes its unwritten rules very seriously (e.g. public etiquette, national pride, the nuclear family, etc.). People tend to be conservative in their ambitions and prefer to stick to proven methods, as well as rigid codes of belief (including religious doctrines). For instance, the refrain “más vale malo conocido que bueno por conocer” (“a known evil is better than an unknown good”) is very popular in Mexico.
Long Term Orientation
The relatively low score of 24 means that the Mexican culture is normative. Mexicans exhibit great respect for traditions and norms (e.g. their love for historical monuments and “national heritage”), and tend to see truth as absolute (e.g. good vs evil) and treat societal change with suspicion. They have a relatively small propensity to save for the future, and focus their attention on achieving quick results. Importantly, their focus is on immediate needs, particularly those of their family and those for whom they are required to provide service. In organizations, Mexicans will tend to pay closer attention to job security, fair payment and the next paycheck, and will devote less energy to thinking about the long-term viability of the business.
With a very high score of 97, Mexican culture has a definite tendency toward Indulgence. Although working hard is an important value for Mexicans, they also know how to enjoy themselves and have a good time. For the most part, this is linked to their rich social lives, and the desire to connect with other people beyond their daily obligations. In other words, leisurely activities are to be shared with family and friends. That said, it is also a way in which Mexicans give themselves some degree of permission to be selfish (some would even view it as ‘self-care’), as it allows them to relax and lighten up. Eating and drinking is most certainly one of the favorite pastimes (Mexico has been the world leader in per capita consumption of soft drinks for decades, making it one of the highest-ranking countries in obesity).