Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Dating in Mexico: Why cultural translation is key to a happy partnership

Dating in Mexico can be a challenge. My date had promised to pick me up at 8:45 p.m. It was our first outing, and I was excited. 

My chosen attire was casual yet elegant, creating the illusion that I was interested but not over-eager. I hadn’t dated a Mexican before and this gentleman was, as far as I could tell, the man of my dreams. I had to approach this delicate situation with precision and grace. 

Couple kissing behind a hat
This could be you, with some patience and understanding. (Allef Vinicius)

As the butterflies in my stomach flitted their tiny wings ferociously, I checked the time.

8:45 p.m.

Hm. Shouldn’t he be here by now?

I applied another layer of lipstick.

8:55 p.m.

Hmm. Maybe he’s stuck in traffic?

9:05 p.m.

Hmmm.

I sat on the sofa, dissecting our earlier conversation over WhatsApp. Yes, he definitely said 8:45 p.m. Is he standing me up? The thought made my limbs go numb. I placed the phone on the table in slow motion and slumped further into the couch. Why would he…

DING.

The blood gushed back to my extremities as I lunged forward to seize the dinging phone. 

“I’m here!”

Welcome to dating in Mexico.

It’s different here.

Woman staring out the window sitting on a chair waiting
The Mexican perception of time can be very different to what many Anglo-centric cultures are used to. (Anthony Tran/Unsplash)

Dating ain’t for the weary, wherever you are. Regardless of your country of origin, similar themes arise in all kinds of relationships. Psychology Today claims the most common sources of conflict include (but are not limited to) jealousy, intimacy, screen time, and communication. 

Add to that cultural nuance and a possible language barrier, you’ve stumbled upon a recipe for disaster. Or a recipe for success. Cross-cultural relationships have the potential to be extremely rewarding, especially if both parties enter the courtship with open minds and a willingness to learn.

Learn what, exactly? Each other’s languages, for starters. More than spoken word, the language of your romance involves cultural traditions, history, role expectations, even your country’s financial situation. To interpret each other’s behavior, it’s crucial to understand that belief systems can vary across cultures. Core relationship truths that exist in the US, for example, are likely not identical to those in Mexico. 

Like, promptness. 

Let’s say your Mexican girlfriend is late for dinner. Again. You’re fed up with her lack of respect for your schedule, so you lash out when she finally arrives. She’s confused and doesn’t seem to know what she did wrong.

“We often insert a cultural meaning on a behavior that doesn’t apply. Challenges arise when we apply an interpretation [of what a behavior means] that’s not culturally matched,” says Jenna Mayhew, founder of Hola Therapy in Mexico City’s trendy Condesa neighbourhood.

If like Jenna, your home country is Australia, tardiness could be seen as a lack of respect. In Mexico, where start times are more fluid, it likely isn’t. An intercultural relationship may require you to “renegotiate your concrete beliefs”, according to Jenna. Especially when your concrete belief doesn’t seem to exist here.

This can be a significant obstacle for the foreign partner. For one, cultural interpretations are implicit, and difficult to identify and change in yourself. In addition, you are experiencing a level of stress that your Mexican partner is not. Living across a border from your family and friends can have an underlying effect on your relationship. So can the mental load of navigating a new country in a second language, with limited access to care and amenities in your native tongue.

The road to cross cultural dating is often paved with misunderstandings. (Christopher Lemercier/Unsplash)

And while a lifestyle like this “builds up your level of resistance, it doesn’t mean it’s not hard”, says Jenna.

To balance that with an intercultural relationship requires a lot of patience and curiosity. If you’re feeling like a fish out of water in the Mexican dating pool, arm yourself with the following personal flotation devices. Then you’ll be ready to dive right back in.

Trust might be exhibited in different ways

According to Jenna, clients from the United States tend to build trust based on their partner’s previous actions. If there has never been a previous violation or transgression, the bond strengthens. That’s not always the case in Mexico.

One Mexico City-based couples therapist at Hola Therapy has noticed that many of her Mexican clients build trust by evaluating “their partner’s access to having an affair”. Meaning, your boyfriend expects you to avoid any situation that might be interpreted as romantic, even if it’s not. This could be confusing to an American, who likely doesn’t see coffee with a coworker as threatening. While these beliefs are certainly changing, especially in Mexico City, much of Mexican society is still traditional in this way.

Your partner might feel uncomfortable saying no

Saying “no” can be quite difficult in a society as polite as Mexico. (Jarritos)

Mexican culture is extremely polite. Think about the phrases you hear often in Mexico:

  • ¿Me regalas un café, por favor? Literally, can you gift me a coffee, please?
  • ¿Mande? It means “command”, but in Mexico it is used in place of the harsher “Qué? (What?)” when you’d like something repeated.
  • Con permiso! Used when trying to pass by the little señora on the sidewalk whose snail pace is slowing you down. You’re essentially asking to pass her “with permission”. 

That etiquette has made it hard for many to say “no” outright, which can be baffling at first. Try to identify the phrases used to replace the dreaded word to reduce miscommunication. Alternatives to “no” might include “maybe, I’ll let you know ahorita, you know I heard the new sushi restaurant on Calle Independencia is really delicious, but we can still go to the Italian place that you like. Whatever you want!”.

There might be role expectations that you’re no longer used to

Financial inequality between genders has long played a role in Mexican society. Statista shows that in 2022, male workers were still earning an average income 13.15% higher than women. This disparity can manifest in expectations that are disappearing in your home country. 

Tipping by card
Splitting the bill is not always the best idea in Mexico – usually one party foots the bill for dates. (Blake Wisz/Unsplash)

Generally speaking, a man will pick up the tab in a male-female relationship or, in the case of a same-sex relationship, the person who initiated the date will usually pay.

Be careful when offering to split the bill. There’s a chance your date might interpret that as romantic disinterest and stop pursuing you. 

If you’re dating a Mexican man you will likely cease to open doors of any kind

If you’re dating a caballero, the likelihood that you will ever have to open a door again will plummet. This includes car doors, so if you’re in the passenger seat of a parked car, there’s a very good chance your date will ask you to wait until he comes around and assists you out. Whether you interpret this as chivalry or machismo is up to you, but knowing this cultural nuance will make dating here much easier.

Conflict can be an opportunity for connection

Cross cultural relationships are classified as high risk, high reward relationships. As much potential as there is for conflict, there’s equal potential for growth. To reap the full benefits of your international relationship, enter from a place of wonder and focus on understanding the reason behind each other’s behavior instead of trying to change it.

And, of course, learn how to make a mouthwatering quesadilla.

Bethany Platanella is a travel planner and lifestyle writer based in Mexico City. She lives for the dopamine hit that comes directly after booking a plane ticket, exploring local markets, practicing yoga and munching on fresh tortillas. Sign up to receive her Sunday Love Letters to your inbox, peruse her blog, or follow her on Instagram.

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