Respect Is Key To Business In Mexico

September 28, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — A deeper understanding of the Mexican culture can help pave a smoother road ahead for Americans doing business in Mexico

According to author and international business consultant Ned Crouch, culture is like an iceberg: What a person sees, hears, smells, tastes and feels is only 10 percent of it. Ninety percent of what's really going on is out of view.

"What happens is we make judgments on that 10 percent and we make big mistakes, and the next thing you know we start stereotyping each other. That's because we have to reconcile what we can't analyze," Crouch told members of the World Affairs Council of West Michigan at the recent kickoff of its 2004 lecture series at AquinasCollege's DonnellyCenter

Crouch, a founding member of the U.S.-Mexico Chamber of Commerce, Detroit, outlined some of the major points he makes in his new book "Mexicans & Americans: Cracking the Cultural Code."

He discussed the stereotypes Americans and native Mexicans have of each other and how their different work styles often clash, and offered insights on how the two countries can build more harmonious working relationships through better cultural understanding.

He distinguished American culture as rooted in the Anglo-Saxon culture and Mexican culture as rooted in the Aztec culture.

Culture is a survival mechanism, he explained. It's a way that a people collectively decide what is most urgent to them and how they're going to organize themselves for the common economic good and for survival.

American companies shouldn't go to Mexico expecting Mexicans to change. Change won't happen very quickly because their deeply rooted culture has helped them survive for 5,000 years, Crouch noted.

"When we go to another country the first thing we need to do is to try to track that cultural code," he said.

There are three ciphers — or what Crouch calls "cultural set pieces" — operating underneath the surface of cultures: the sense of time, the sense of space, and the construction and use of language.

Time is extremely important to Americans; they become agitated and impatient when they have to wait, Crouch explained. Mexicans, on the other hand, are patient and more flexible in regard to time.

Why is that important in business?

"We assume that everybody thinks the same way we do," he said. "Mexicans wear watches so we think they value time the way we do. Mexicans value the time they spend with others; they value the personal aspects of time.

"Schedules and things like that seem a little bit arbitrary and don't mean a lot to them."

An American company might ask for product delivery by Friday, for instance, and the Mexicans agree because they're "very agreeable, polite people," but they don't always carry through the way Americans anticipate they will, Crouch explained.

He suggests, for example, that rather than simply demanding product delivery by Friday, the American company representative say: "I'd like to have that delivery by Friday because that's when the president is coming and I want to show the president how well we work together."

"Now, that really means something to them," he said.

A second underlying factor is the sense of space. "Anglos" are accustomed to drawing an invisible space around themselves — a "protective cocoon" that expresses their individuality, Crouch observed.

Mexicans, however, are naturally group-oriented and want to be with other people, he said. Instead of drawing circles around themselves, "they draw a circle around their whole homestead and look inwardly to each other for nurturing. Family is very important to them."

The third cultural set piece, the construction and use of language, is more complex. Americans doing business in Mexico can benefit by understanding the subtle nuances of the Spanish language, which is a more flexible language than is the "extremely egalitarian" English language, Crouch said.

All words in Spanish are masculine or feminine and titles are commonly used in conjunction with people's names. Mexicans, he said, tend to elevate people and confer honor and status.

"In Mexico, people will be polite and agree with you," Crouch noted. "If you want an honest answer, you have to take a little more time."

Mexicans also tend to be more self-contained, while Americans tend to be more "in your face," and are often viewed as "pushy," he said. We're also viewed as shallow.

Another cultural difference is that in Mexico, the hierarchy in companies is much more stringent.

Americans are very future-oriented with a strong tie to the present, whereas Mexicans tend to be more present-oriented with a strong tie to the past. They're more group-oriented in the workplace rather than individual-oriented, Crouch said. When there's a problem or conflict to be resolved, they'll all sit down and discuss it and mend any relationships that need mending.

The Mexican workplace consists of a system of patron-worker relationships. The patron is a mentor of sorts in whom the worker can confide. And if there's a problem, the patron may intercede with the supervisor on behalf of the worker. As Crouch observed, the patron-worker relationship is very important because if the worker loses the job, the patron might be the person to get him another job.

According to Crouch, Mexicans want to be modern and they are, but they don't want to step out into the future. They're a little bit risk averse.

His final word of advice to Americans who want to do business in Mexico

"You really have to develop relationships. Spend some time with them. Get to know them. Slow down, and mind your manners. Respect trumps everything."    

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