Saying hola and adios in Mexico, and getting it right

Greetings among friends and strangers. Illustration: Getty
Greetings among friends and strangers. Illustration: Getty

Sometimes it becomes all blurry when you face cultural situations that can be completely different in another country. Especially when they happen on a daily basis. One of those situations is saying hello and goodbye.

The framework that you take with you from your background is not necessarily helpful in another culture. I will take myself as an example: In the Netherlands, saying hello and goodbye happens with three kisses on the cheeks between a man and a woman, or between women. Men only shake hands, and perhaps hug.

You can imagine that when I met the family of my Mexican husband. This caused hilarious situations as my second (and third) cheek kiss were never answered. It didn’t take long before I got the hang of it, but still, greeting and saying adios in Mexico can be tricky when you’re not from there.

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During the years that I’ve been here, the following unwritten rules on greeting came to my mind. For our purposes, let’s say that it can be separated in social situations for man-woman, women, and men who greet each other; and in formal and informal meetings.

Formal meeting and saying goodbye, not knowing each other:

  • Man-woman: Handshake
  • Women: Handshake (kiss on the cheek when introduced by someone one of the parties involved knows, when saying goodbye)
  • Men: Handshake

Formal meeting and saying goodbye, who know each other:

  • Man-woman: Handshake and kiss on the cheek
  • Women:Handshake and kiss on the cheek
  • Men:Handshake and pat on the back

Informal meeting and saying goodbye:

  • Man-woman: Handshake or hug and kiss on the cheek
  • Women: Handshake or hug and kiss on the cheek
  • Men: Handshake or hug and pat on the back (I have also seen close friends and relatives kiss each other on the cheeks to show affection)

I am always surprised how quickly a conversation can go from formal to informal when it comes to greeting and saying goodbye. For instance, women can greet each other at a first meeting with just a handshake, as do men, and when the conversation goes well (even if it just takes three minutes), it is okay to say goodbye with a handshake and a kiss on the cheek, or among men a handshake and a pat on the back.

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Not only are these situations challenging when you are in a culture different than your own; it is also tricky when you go back for a visit to your home country. Every time I go and visit my family and friends in the Netherlands after having lived in Mexico for a couple of years, we have that awkward moment of greeting. My close relatives and best friends already know this and we only kiss once and then hug each other, instead of the usual three kisses. So, often we had nearly kissing-on-the-mouth-moments. Good for a laugh, but not very comfortable.

What are your experiences on hola and adios? If you have a funny cultural anecdote, let me know.


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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