Margie Hord

Expat by Default

Understanding Mexican Courtesy or “Buena Educación”


When I was in Spain a few years ago, it shocked me to find a server treating us somewhat rudely, until I remembered a friend once telling us “you almost have to use swear words to get a waiter’s attention in Spain!” What?  Then other contacts have confirmed that Spaniards tend to be very direct and in-your-face, often appearing offensive to courteous Latin Americans.

It has occurred to me that, as Mexican culture is a fusion of Spanish and indigenous influence, perhaps its emphasis on extreme politeness and “doing the right thing” is more related to its indigenous roots after all! It is commonly called “buena educación”, which is a bit more all-encompassing than “good manners”. It has to do with being a decent person, or as Paul Yeatman says, having “good upbringing”. Among other things, he says, “Personal hygiene and courtesy are of primary importance, from the look of the fingernails to table manners to the rituals of politeness”.

Greeting people properly, saying “good morning”, “please” and “thank you”, all of these and much more are involved in the definition of appropriate behavior. Showing respect is quite important, a part of courtesy. If someone walks into a room and fails to greet others, they may comment: “Llegaste como burro,” that is, “You’ve arrived like a donkey”.

Making people feel you care about them is also, in my opinion, part of the picture. Perhaps this is one reason why some Mexicans avoid telling you they can’t make a social get-together so as not to hurt your feelings. Politeness sometimes means saying “yes” when the truth would be a “no”.

Despite my many years in Latin America, my parents’ Canadian culture is the most ingrained in me. It still takes certain effort to remember to greet (mostly) everyone personally upon arriving at a small social gathering, and likewise to say good-bye upon leave-taking. Otherwise, some people may feel miffed or ignored. At least, when my “buena educación” is slightly lacking, they can forgive me because I’m a “foreigner”, albeit my double citizenship.

In a small shop, it is proper to greet people upon arriving, and when leaving a restaurant there’s that lovely “buen provecho”, similar to the French “bon apetit”. It is often confusing to my Spanish-speaking students who ask how to say “Buen provecho” in English, when I explain there isn’t any similar expression or custom. The phrase “Enjoy!” does exist, but I wouldn’t use it to speak to strangers at another table.

Once I finished a phone call with a fairly brief good-bye, and later learned that I had reportedly “hung up” on someone! In the future I tried to make my farewells more gradual and prolonged, but it doesn’t come easily.

If you sneeze in public, it’s quite likely one or more people will politely say “Salud!” In my home country, that wouldn’t be necessary in the presence of strangers.

An important part of courtesy is “being a gentleman” and opening doors for women, for example. My Dad was part of that old-fashioned culture where men also walked on the street side of the sidewalk, but the younger generations don’t often practice such behavior. (My Mexican hubby was like that, too). Even back when I first lived in Mexico, an American woman at the university was offended by a Mexican opening a door for her: “Don’t you think I can do that by myself?”

Ex-pats who come from more casual cultures can seem to be rude without realizing it, in different ways. At an international school in our city, it was an issue that American girls would sometimes slip off their shoes in class. I’ve also seen non-Mexican friends remove their footwear in a living room and curl their legs up under them. It hit me that among city dwellers in central Mexico that would seem very improper in front of visitors, although mores may differ in other parts of the country.

Another aspect of formality and “buena educación” involves dress. A Mexican friend who works for an American company tells me that Americans may arrive at a party wearing “business casual”, when more formal dress is the norm. Once an American visited their plant wearing a T-shirt and jeans, totally out of place considering his position. Thinking about the context, she says he was no doubt dressed very practically, as he would be visiting assembly lines and such. Americans and Canadians tend to be more informal, and having lived in Mexico for so long, I have often found myself overdressed for certain occasions, like a concert, when I visit Canada.

While in California visiting family, we went to a bistro with live music one night. My daughter looked around and asked me to confirm her observation: almost everyone was dressed quite casually, many with tennis shoes. We both agreed that in a comparable place in Mexico, clients would be much more dressed up. Tennis shoes might be considered sloppy. Too… American?

The formalities of refinement involve properly addressing those who cross our path. The use of verb forms for the formal “usted” instead of the familiar “tú” means we respect a person because they are older or in a higher position than ourselves. It is also appropriate to create a certain distance from people we don’t know very well, and helps to show service personnel respect, avoiding over-familiarity. Then there are certain environments, however, where the “usted” may seem pompous or overly-divisive even with initial contacts. This seems to be the case when I meet a fellow university professor on campus, for example.

Two businesspeople talking at a table over a laptop with line charts

I find the use of “titles” in Latino culture fascinating. Those with certain professions take pride in being addressed as “doctor, ingeniero, licenciado”. Although the latter is specifically for lawyers, it can also be used for bureaucrats or others who at least have a university education, as a BA-level degree is a “licenciatura”.

However, there are ways to refer to those without professions, too. At the colleges where I’ve taught, security guards are often referred to as “poli” as if they were policemen; this is a way of showing respect when one doesn’t know their name. Carpenters and brick-layers are respectfully called “maestro”. Gardeners and cooks, among others, may be addressed as “Don Enrique” or “Doña Sara”. I am reminded of the Japanese custom of suffixing “San” to names.

On more than one occasion I’ve raised my voice with clerks or salespeople when service has been deficient. The reaction of those around me has made me feel like an “ugly American”: brash, loud, and demanding. Mexicans know how to complain very politely and persistently, although of course there are exceptions. To get a proper response, however, it’s much better to keep calm. Well, perhaps that works in many parts of the world!

Then there’s the use of the diminutive suffix “-ito”, mostly for nouns, which often adds a dimension of endearment or respect. Although used in other Spanish-speaking countries, (In my opinion it may be especially favored in Mexico due to the influence of Náhuatl or Aztec, where the suffix “–tzin” has similar uses.) A not-so-politically-correct term can be softened by using “-ito”. Calling someone “viejo” (old) or “ciego” (blind) may sound demeaning; “viejito” and “cieguito” are more acceptable. Referring to the natives of Mexico as “indios” now is inappropriate and is sometimes very offensive; “no seas indio” (Don’t be an Indian) is a way to tell kids to practice good manners. The term “indito” was a softer one in the past, but for modern Mexicans no longer politically correct.

Woman wearing a red sweater holding a cozy mug of coffee

The diminutive is used more in women’s speech, and may be more characteristic of central Mexico. One invites a friend to meet some time for “un cafecito” (coffee). One offers them “un agüita” (a glass of water) or “un taquito” (which may mean food in general, not just tacos). What’s interesting is that there are those who will extend the use of the suffix to words like “adiós” and say “adiosito”.

One last use of that suffix is one I’ve heard criticized, which is calling God “Diosito”. As some say: “You may have a little God, but I have a big one!” My response: If you refer to your parents and grandparents using “-ito” or “-ita”, are you saying they’re small or unimportant? In that context, it’s totally meant as endearment, so I have no right to belittle someone who says “Diosito”. Although this might not be categorized under “buena educación”, the diminutive in general is related to politeness.

As is the case in all cultures, there are regional and ethnic differences; the rules of politeness aren’t the same everywhere. One hears it said that “norteños” or northerners speak loudly and seem rude at times. “Costeños” or coastal inhabitants tend to be more informal in their dress and speech. My husband once hinted to some friends from rural Veracruz that they should be more careful and not refer to people as “el Juan” or “la Lupita” (with an article before their name) as it was disrespectful, at least in Puebla. Then I visited that region and noted that the practice was altogether common there!

Those who know Latino culture have surely come up with a number of other examples as they read. If you visit Mexico, or any other culture in fact, ask what’s considered proper in different circumstances, and above all, observe. Finally, as much as possible, learn to adapt!


  1. ¡Magnifico! It is clear and pleasant to read. At my age (91) I’ve been going to funerals lately (not mine) and usually attendees to services and “viewings” can be informally dressed, though women tend to be better than men. However, one I attended last Friday from a friend who had risen in the federal government to Deputy Assistant Secretary was overcrowded and almost all men had ties and suit jackets or blazers. I was surprised though I think it is much better. I have been wearing for several years white guayaberas so at that occasion I put a tie on, my cardigan sweater and blazer.

    • MargieHord

      March 30, 2018 at 5:02 am

      Thanks for liking this. True, even in the US one needs to figure out which contexts might be more formal. Guayaberas are a great in-between clothing item in Latin American, especially long-sleeved ones being more formal.

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