Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The American Know-It-All

We all know the classic local American Know-It-All: he’s a self-proclaimed expert on Mexico — it’s always a he, isn’t it? He can tell you all about the customs, the holidays, the traditions. He can tell you what most people like and don’t like, think and don’t think. He knows the best spots for tacos and the inner dynamics of the country’s families. His girlfriend’s family, mostly.

And he barely speaks a word of Spanish.

The clueless know-it-all

Now, I’m no one to be criticizing others: I’ve got plenty of my own conceit when it comes to Mexico.

But my goodness, even I know my limits!

Chilis restaurant
“Trust me you guys, this is the best Mexican place in Oaxaca” – This guy. (Genecov Group)

I had a friend here in Mexico for a while who was the exact person I described above. And before I get into it all, let me first state this: he was a very nice man.

He was also very, very clueless. But part of the gift of being a man from the United States is a kind of unending confidence that most of us can only dream of. At least he gave most of his explanations and analyses in English, so he probably wasn’t understandable enough to bother too many Mexicans.

I always wonder about these types, who remind me of the Mexicans I’ve met who claim that English is super easy. They understand it perfectly, they insist; they just have a little trouble speaking it. 

But anyway, look, buddy. If you don’t speak the language, I’m not following you around the country, okay?

The actual know-it-all

On the other end of the spectrum, we find people who actually do know it all, and like to tell you about it. A lot.

Two men having a conversation at a bar
“…If you ask the barman for “dos mas cervezas, pinche güey,” he’ll like, think you’re local” – This other guy. (Clem Onojeghuo/Unsplash)

One fellow I know who’s been here for many years consistently speaks to me as if I’m just off the boat. He throws out folkloric phrases, many of them kind of rude. He then translates and explains them, kind of like my meme pieces, only unasked for.

Want a pro tip for all of us know-it-alls out there? Don’t offer your “expertise” unless asked. Definitely don’t assume you’re the most interesting person in the room. And my goodness, don’t explain Mexico to Mexicans.

What do Mexicans say?

Mexicans, for the most part, let this type of person be. As a whole, they tend to not get worked up about things. They let people behave as if they know everything they pretend to know. They might whisper a “qué pendejo” — what an ass — out of earshot later, it’s true. But they seem to be missing that swell of righteous indignation that so naturally comes to Anglos. They don’t let it keep irritating them after the fact.

Besides, Mexicans have their own version of this. It’s usually some variation of “I don’t bother speaking English because I don’t like it.” Related is the phrase “Well, I understand English perfectly, it’s just tiresome to speak.” A relative of my ex-husband gave me an even more preposterous explanation. “I only understand proper, British English,” he said — in Spanish, obviously. 

See? We can all be asses, and it’s fine. But that doesn’t mean it’s something we should strive for.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sarahedevries.substack.com.

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