Fashionably late: 7 ways ‘yes’ means ‘no’ in Mexico

European expectations of keeping an appointment are stymied in another culture

Illustration: Getty
Illustration: Getty

I clearly remember one of our first family meetings in Mexico.

We were supposed to meet them in the early afternoon, and I was rushing and running. My husband calmly assured me that there was nothing to worry about; everybody would arrive late.

But as a typical and very time-oriented Dutch, I could not believe that was true, so I ignored him and we hopped in the car. When we stopped at our destination, I realized how silly I’d been acting and how much I still needed to learn about Mexican culture. We waited for 40 more minutes before anyone arrived. Half of the people who’d said they would come weren’t there.

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Basically, when time needs to be specified, problems seem to arise. Official appointments and business meetings are normally on time, but informal settings are different.

People in Mexico often find it different to answer with a no. I cannot count the times that we bumped into friends while grocery shopping, and people said that we would see each other in un rato. At first, I freaked out every time this happened, as I wanted to be the house perfectly in order to receive guests or I already had other plans. But guess what, no one showed up.

It is so hard to get a handle on what is socially acceptable in a culture different than your own, and you will probably learn by making mistakes. After talking to many Mexicans and foreigners, and being in these situations myself, I concluded that I encountered a social rule: whenever you can, avoid saying no. And be fashionably late.

In the beginning I felt bad about this. To me it was rude not to tell the truth and simply admit that I wasn’t going to be there or at an exact time. When time passed by, I figured that these were merely social justifications depending on the context in which they were being said. It was there to soften a conversation and never, ever hurt someone else’s feelings.

But whether you are new in Mexico, or even if you’ve been here a while, it may be difficult to figure out what words can be expected to mean no, or will have you waiting.

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Here are some clues:

  • a lo mejor: perhaps – perhaps yes, perhaps no
  • nos vemos mas tarde: we’ll see each other later – later or… never
  • en un rato: in a bit – a very unspecified bit
  • en X hora: at X hour – fashionably late seems to be okay, but it may be considered rude to arrive on time and it is accepted to be half an hour to an hour late
  • mañana: tomorrow – or never
  • ahorita: now – but not actually now, more like in 20 minutes, the day after tomorrow, or never
  • la proxima semana: next week – very unlikely that you’ll meet next week

I guess it’s never too late. After years of learning, now I am the last person who leaves the house when meeting with someone. A lo mejor fashionably Mexican Dutch, right?


Debbie Vorachen is an expat from the Netherlands who has been living in Mexico for over five years. She is a cultural anthropologist with a passion for intercultural communication and traveling who founded Ahorita YA. Email ahoritaya@outlook.com if you face any cultural challenges, or if you have any doubts or questions about (living in) Mexico.

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