Culture Code Secrets Revealed…Why Do They Do That ? Names and Spaces !

August 21, 2008

Culture Code Secrets Revealed…

Why Do They Do That ?

Names and Spaces !

 I used to teach English in Guadalajara 7 years ago. I lived over a Bank in a coldwater flat in a barrio not far from Av. Vallarta.  My Spanish was very limited then, but even more limited was my knowledge of the culture code of Mexico.

But since then I’ve learned a lot more of the language and the cultural codes. I have a live in coach. Her name is Arcelia Lopez Serrano de Grosvenor and we’ve been married now for over 6 years.

Let’s start with her name. Arcelia is her first name. She doesn’t have a middle name. Lopez is her father’s last name. Serrano is her Mom’s last name.


Then the “de” translates “of” (indicates she’s married to a man whose last name follows the ‘de’ which in this case is ‘Grosvenor’. So the general rule is that they don’t have a middle name (some do) but do have two last names, We usually have a middle name (The Mexicans think we have two first names) and one last name.

When dealing with Mexican officials and filling out forms don’t let them think that your middle name is your father’s last name and that your last name is your mother’s last name. This is especially troublesome when you have two official documents with one document using your middle name as your last name and your actual last name is thought to be your mother’s last name (maiden name we would say) and another document done differently. Please be sure they all match to avoid “mucho problemas”!

Just say, “Yo tengo dos nombres primero.” (For example Sidney Quentin).

Ok, on with the story: I met my wife in my first ever practice teaching class. I had 10 students in the class. I set up my class room with two long tables each with 5 chairs on one side facing the blackboard.

As my students arrived I noticed that one table filled up first. I thought this odd since usually people would enter this situation and separate initially and use both tables until they were each filled.

Then the next event was even stranger. The 6th student to arrive did not go to the second table, but instead removed a chair from the second table and placed it at one end of the first table. Have you figured the code out yet?

Ok, let’s move on a bit farther. The 7th student arrives and he too takes a chair from the empty table and places it on the opposite end of the first table.

Now if you’re kept up you know that one table has seven students and the remaining table is empty and only has three chairs left.

You guessed it, the next student to arrive took one of the remaining chairs from the second table and placed it at the first table with the other students with his back to me and the blackboard.

At this point I intervened. I suggested that he sit at the other table so he could see the blackboard. He reluctantly moved and as the other two students arrived they joined him.

Why did they all want to sit at the one table even though it meant being crowed and not being able to see the blackboard?

Their cultural space is different. They all likely grew up in extended family households with lots of brothers and sisters ( my wife has 9 siblings) and perhaps Grandma and Grandpa in the same small house.

You may notice that the parking spaces are significantly smaller in parking lots and the houses in most towns are all crowded close together. Of course some of this is economic necessity.

iMexican homes

Have you ever seen a pickup truck loaded with people in the cargo box on back in Mexico? This is an easy one to explain. You can make a living with a pickup truck when  all the kids are in school and Mom is home. But, if you had just a sedan you couldn’t … and besides you most likely would not be able to get the whole family in the sedan anyway… and you probably could not afford two vehicles earning $3 USD per hour.

Ford Pickup
Mexicans, not unlike Texans, have a love affair with the pick up truck. It’s almost totally replaced the horse and wagon even in rural Mexico these days, but the utility continues.


I think by now wanting to have a pickup is ingrained into the culture, even with smaller families and good paying jobs that you don’t need to have a pickup to earn a living.

I know several young bi lingual professional Mexican businessmen who drive snazzy new pickups and prefer them even over sports cars.

So, you see that one of the keys to the culture code is “Space”. The Mexican doesn’t need or want much of it. In fact they feel uncomfortable when they are too far away from the person they’re talking to.

 North Americans stand about a yard apart or a little more when standing and talking. Try this distance while speaking to a Mexican friend and he will feel very uncomfortable and will step forward cutting the distance between you to about 18 inches.

This of course makes you feel uncomfortable as your personal body space has just been invaded, so you step back. Now, he feels uncomfortable and so soon he’ll step forward again. This dance will continue until the conversation is over or one of you gives up and adjusts to the other’s space.

Ever wonder why when you’re in line at a local supermarket everyone is jammed up against each other or someone you assume to be quite rude steps in between you and the person just ahead of you in line. It’s probably because you didn’t appear to be really in line totally since you were so far from the person in front of you. Perhaps you were waiting for someone to bring another item you forgot to the check out stand.

My trick: I stand closer than I would in the USA, but not as close as the Mexicans in line. This is my compromise. The same thing works when driving, Just be extra alert. Perhaps I’ll write an article on Mexican driving culture another time.

So, now you know “Why do they do that?”




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