Recognition and Respect

One of the greatest differences, I’ve found, between life in the United States and here in Mexico is this: Here, it is a large part of the rich, old, cultural fabric to recognize and respect  other people, even just passing them on the street.

North of the Border? Not so much.

Perhaps I lived in the city of New York twenty years too long. Smiling at, making eye contact with, and chatting up strangers on sidewalks or in subways was simply not done– especially if you were a youngish woman on your own, striving to be street-smart and stay safe.

Even as a little girl growing up in New Jersey’s suburbs in the ‘50s, I and my sisters were taught never to talk to strangers. There were bad people out there, we were led to believe, who could do us harm. So we had to always beware, keep a safe distance, and “run like hell,” if necessary, away from them.

Some of this vigilance and wariness toward others has obviously stuck with me, all these years on.

When I first began private Spanish lessons with my tutor Edith five years ago here in San Miguel de Allende and asked her for secrets of success in learning the language, she said cheerily, “Práctica, práctica!” (Practice, practice!)

“But,” I countered, “how can I practice speaking Spanish when I have no one to practice with between our weekly lessons? I’m here alone.”

She suggested I walk to the Jardin (the city’s central plaza) every day and find a nice person on a park bench to chat with. She smiled. “San Miguel is filled with people who speak Spanish,” she said.

“Yes, but…” I stammered. “I’m from New York. I can’t speak with strangers!”

I’m getting better, though. I’m learning. I’m learning the importance of what Mexicans refer to as cortesía (courtesy), the social protocols taught to all Mexican children by their mothers.

For example: the significance of greeting everyone you meet, even strangers on the street, with a smile and “buenos dias” (good day – used between dawn and noon), or “buenas tardes” (good afternoon – from noon to sunset), or “buenas noches” (good evening/night – after sunset and before sunrise); saying “con permiso, por favor” when requesting attention or space (as in, “excuse me, may I get by?”); and offering this polite blessing on another’s meal (in passing someone’s table in a restaurant, for instance), “buen provecho!”

“Buen provecho!” — lunchtime at a cafe in SMA’s design center, Fabrica la Aurora

So instead of avoiding strangers, being wary and suspicious of them, as I and perhaps many other Norteamericanos were trained from childhood to do — for our own personal well being, we may have thought — Mexicans reach out to others in recognition and respect, in a spirit of we’re-all-in-this-together human connectedness. What a difference this makes in day-to-day human interactions, I’ve observed.

A lot has been said and written about the joys of living in San Miguel de Allende – the food, music, colors, art, architecture, culture, history, people, climate, overall beauty, and affordability for us retired gringos – but one aspect has not received as much attention, in my opinion. It is this contrast, this cortesía, this emphasis on respect. Especially, I’m finding now as an older person, respect for older people, regardless of nationality or background.

This was true for me also in Mali, West Africa, when I lived and worked there for three years in my mid-fifties. Mali, like Mexico, is an ancient country, proud of its history and culture. (Perhaps only the oldest countries are wise enough to appreciate older people?) As I noted in my memoir of that experience:

“In Mali, unlike in most parts of the United States, older people, especially older women, are revered. The attitude of respect and admiration shown toward women who have lived long lives and, presumably, gained wisdom along the way permeated Mali’s culture like a golden thread woven throughout the social fabric. … Relinquishing youth, beauty, and sexual appeal for wisdom, reverence, and respect seemed like a healthy tradeoff to me” (p. 161, How to Make an African Quilt: The Story of the Patchwork Project of Ségou, Mali).

Yesterday I listened to Paul Theroux’s marvelous keynote address given at the San Miguel Literary Sala in February 2019 (available from their website, in which he discusses his new travel book, On the Plain of Snakes, about his most recent travels through Mexico. I listened to him as I busied myself straightening my apartment. But I had to stop what I was doing to write this down: “There’s more respect for an older person in Mexico than anywhere in the States,” he said.

I’m reading On the Plain of Snakes now, highlighting it madly as I go along. Paul Theroux made this trip alone, by car, when he was seventy-six – the age I am now – so I can relate on many levels. In regard to age he writes, in part:

“In the casual opinion of most Americans, I am an old man, and therefore of little account, past my best, fading in a pathetic diminuendo … either invisible or someone to ignore rather than respect. [But] … I think of myself in the Mexican way, not as an old man but as most Mexicans regard a senior … not worn out, beneath notice, someone to be patronized, but owed the respect traditionally accorded to an elder” (p. 5, On the Plain of Snakes).

How refreshing, how life-affirming, I feel, to be seen here and now in Mexico, not as a harmless, vapid, pretty-young-thing, which was the case for me a long time ago in New York — the only reason strangers ever glanced in my direction — but as a fellow human being, still alive, still visible and somewhat relevant, an elder worthy of a little recognition and respect because I have lived this long and, perhaps, learned a few valuable lessons worth sharing.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

This link will take you to three excellent YouTube videos that will further explain Mexican history, culture, and especially cortesia, presented by Warren Hardy, who runs an outstanding Spanish school here in San Miguel de Allende:

31 thoughts on “Recognition and Respect”

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Pat. I look forward to reading your article in lokkal. I was thinking of submitting this post to them, but I guess you beat me to it! 🙂

      1. I’m sure that your post would be accepted. Your post has more of a cultural outlook while my article has a cultural outlook, but also a linguistic outlook.

        1. Thank you for the encouragement, Pat. I went to the lokkal website and tried to figure out how to submit it and who to, but I had no luck. Could you tell me, please?

    2. Thank you, Pat. Thank you for sharing your learnings in such a perfect boots on the ground manner. This article should be read by EVERY NON-MEXICAN resident and visitor, to enlighten them to the ways of interacting here. You presented the daily expectations of the people whose lives we foreigners are moving around in, important cultural behaviors and nuance that we could so often miss. Without knowing these things, we could easily disappoint our local friends and neighbors as well as the larger public around us. It’s sad that we didn’t already realize these cultural keys, but with a copy of your article in our brains, we will now. If we practice using the daily cortesias, I have already proven to myself that we will begin to FEEL MEXICO at a deeper, more ancient and richer level. What a Grand experience!
      (PS I’ve never forgotten Warren Hardy’s explanation of the concept of maleducado… If a stranger to Mexico acts in a culturally rude or offensive manner, he is considered to have been poorly educated, thus maleducado. It is not about reading or arithmetic at all. It means the impolite fellow did not learn the courtesias! I have often thought about the term maleducado as I’ve observed visitors to this country. I’m certain that access to your article will reward them with a new awareness to help deepen their experience in Mexico. It will definitely help remedy some of the anxiety that they may have unconsciously created.)

      1. Thank you so much for your kind words. At first I wondered why strangers were speaking to me, but now I love talking to strangers. I mentioned to a Mexican friend that if I spoke to total strangers in the street in Canada like I do here, people would probably call the police to take away the crazy lady. My friend was mortified!

  1. I think many countries respect the elderly. Very much the base in Asia. Not, of course, the united states. Where only youth and beauty are revered. And only temporarily.

  2. And here’s another “sign” of respect…At our very large super-market, formerly called Mega, the parking signs closest to the
    entrance said: Tercero Edad – Third Age. Special parking for
    those of us older members of the community. It always made
    me smile and feel good. I took a photo and sent it to many friends up north. HA!

  3. I love this Bonnie – you captured it. It’s what makes us homesick for Mexico when we’re not there.

  4. Wonderful point, BB! Completely equivalent to the charms of architecture, food or art. I treasure the spine-tingling effect of thanking a Mexican for some small assistance and getting the responce, “The pleasure is all mine.”

  5. A lovely piece about one of the true pleasures of Mexico. On my walks here in the US, I make it a point to greet people and most respond in kind, often with a look of surprise. It makes me smile!

  6. After living in SMA I totally agree. Love Buen Provecho . Maybe we should be the ones to recognize our fellow citizens in the US. After moving back I do. Amazing how a hello works anywhere in the world. My husband and I have been to many countries and yes Mexico is the most polite. We can do the same and we do now that we have returned.
    Saludos Amigos

  7. What a great article!! Thank you, Bonnie Black!! I so wish every visitor to Mexico could have read this before they entered this ancient country. To come into the Mexican culture already knowing these behaviors and expectations will make daily interactions here so much more flowing, easier, and kinder. Practicing daily awareness of the people’s Ways, their ways of showing recognition and respect, the courtesias, will open up a tsunami of smiles wherever we move around here. I know this to be true because I experience it every single day that I am in San Miguel! I Love feeling the deeper connection to the people, their history, their life practices. When I return to the States, I miss Mexico on so many levels.

    1. Thank you so much, Pam, for your comments and observations. Perhaps you might share this post with your network — and they with theirs — to get the word out? 🙂

  8. Dear Bon,

    You touch on a sad fact of life in the US. It’s especially sad because this lack of respect is only getting worse. I envy your living in a place where manners and common courtesy are still in
    use. Thank your for another thought-provoking post.


    1. Paul dear — It’s surprising me to see how this particular subject has really touched a nerve. In just two days, hundreds and hundreds of people have read this post; and many have responded, either here at this site or through FB or e-mail to me. When you come to visit, you’ll see for yourself how refreshingly polite the Mexican people are. — Mucho love, BB xx

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.