Though they are neighbors, there are profound cultural differences between the US and Mexico.
These two North American countries share the tenth-largest land border. The heavy fortifications along this border point to the long, complicated history that continues to influence modern-day US-Mexico politics.
And yet, the border is not impermeable to cultural diffusion. The Mexican and US cultures are certainly different in some ways, but they have also shaped each other profoundly in other ways. Keep that in mind as we discuss the cultural differences between the US and Mexico.
Foremost among those cultural differences is language. But the conversation around language — as is also the case with family, social norms and food — is far more complex and nuanced than meets the eye.
A big difference between US American culture and Mexican culture is the role of family. This difference is particularly apparent in the lives of young adults
US culture generally emphasizes independence and “leaving the nest” at an early age. In past generations and even today, it’s common for young people in the US to move out of their parents’ homes at the age of 18.
This independence applies to finances as well as housing. Many 18-year-olds are expected to pay all their own bills as soon as they reach adulthood. It’s typically considered a good thing for a young adult to be self-sufficient.
In Mexico, on the other hand, it’s common for young people to continue to live at home (and receive financial support from their parents and elder relatives) well into adulthood. Sometimes, young adults do not move out of their family home until they are married.
Families in Mexico spend a lot of time socializing with extended family, too. This often entails family obligations every weekend. A healthy social life within the family typically includes a standing family dinner every Sunday.
And the influence of parents doesn’t stop at the borders of the home. Mexican parents often won’t hesitate to call their adult children at work — and they expect them to answer the phone right away. In Mexico, it’s seen as a good thing to have a close-knit and supportive family.
When it comes to social norms, there are certainly differences between Mexican and American cultures.
Americans typically prefer to maintain a three-foot bubble of personal space. They may feel uncomfortable when strangers encroach on this space.
In Mexico, particularly in Mexico City (population: 16 million), there is less personal space to go around. Whether you’re waiting to cross the street, ordering at a bar or standing in line for the metro, it’s not uncommon to come into physical contact with a stranger — and they may not immediately move away.
Greetings and goodbyes
Americans typically use a handshake or a hug to greet someone or say goodbye.
In Mexico, it’s common to greet with a single cheek-to-cheek kiss (or even a lips-to-cheek kiss on certain occasions). What’s more, a wave in Mexico on the way out the door is a bit rude. You should greet and say goodbye to each person individually. At a party, it can take a while to arrive or leave, but you certainly won’t miss seeing everyone!
Americans tend to speak loudly, or at least that’s their reputation globally. And many people in the US have taken a liking to live in suburbs where houses are less congested and neighbors can generally avoid hearing each other.
By contrast, Mexicans generally don’t speak at loud volumes. There is, however, a lot more ambient noise in Mexico. Whether you find it comforting or intrusive depends on your personal tastes. Common noises you may hear in Mexico include the calls of vendors on the street and cumbia beats blasting from a neighbor’s sound system at 7 a.m.
But the timing of meals is another difference between the Mexican and US cultures. Lunch and dinner are typically eaten much later in Mexico than in the US. Here are approximate mealtimes in Mexico:
- Breakfast: 7 a.m. to 12 p.m.
- Lunch: 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.
- Dinner: 8 p.m. -to 11 p.m.
American tourists looking for some lunchtime tacos may be surprised to find that most taquerías (taco shops) are not open in the morning or afternoon. In Mexico, tacos are often late-night food.
Religion, work and politics
Here are a few other cultural differences between the US and Mexico to keep in mind.
As those numbers suggest, religion is a daily practice for many in Mexico. The massive pilgrimage for the Virgin de Guadalupe draws eight million Catholic tourists to Mexico City each December. Aside from Catholicism, Indigenous traditions continue to be practiced alongside newer beliefs, such as the following of Santa Muerte (Saint Death).
Mexicans have a worldwide reputation for being hard workers, and this may be true no matter where in the world they live. It certainly seems to be true in Mexico, where employees work some of the highest work hours per week in Latin America.
Yet, despite having the second-highest GDP in Latin America, Mexico has a much lower minimum wage than other countries in the region. People in the US are also known for putting in a long workweek, but the wages tend to be much higher.
The politics of Mexico are very different from those of the US. As a result of colonial influence as well as modern-day tensions, Mexicans tend to have little love for American foreign policy and its effect on the Mexican economy.
The political spectrum in Mexico is a bit shifted to the left relative to the US. In other words, what might be considered a “leftist” position in the US is fairly centrist in Mexico. Like most of Latin America, Mexico has a long history of active and popular socialist movements stretching from the time of its founding until now. The mainstream US political conversation tends to avoid socialism and communism as extremist ideologies.
Embracing cultural differences between the US and Mexico
Visiting a new place and learning a language is all about getting to know a different culture. For US Americans, the cultural differences between the US and Mexico may be surprising or even challenging.
Whether visiting or making plans to move, it’s important to keep a no pasa nada (no big deal) attitude and an open mind. There is no need to get offended when learning about a new place. Our cultural differences can — and often do — teach us a lot about our own values.