In his book, “Mexico and Mexicans, Cracking the Cultural Code, " author Ned Crouch tells an amusing anecdote that I have heard in many forms in my research and conversations in Mexico.
A stressed-out American decides to goes to the beach. The beach is wonderfully vacant and he eagerly looks forward to a peaceful interlude, nothing but the sound of the surf and the sight of the silvery waves.
He has only just laid his beach towel down and out of nowhere comes a Mexican family – children, grandmother, parents and teenagers who arrive and park themselves right beside him on this otherwise empty stretch of beach. What just happened?
Had our beach goer moved to another spot for more peace, the family would have felt bad, thinking “We must have done something to offend him,” the author warns us.
According to Crouch, who has impressive credentials as the son of a diplomat and businessman in Mexico for many years, Mexicans have a very different sense of space than we Anglo-Saxons do.
Children do not have their own rooms. People like small spaces for parties. The personal distance is four-six inches less when you meet someone. Where we draw a circle around the individual, Mexicans draw it around the group.
I go to a gym many days here in Mazatlan, a two-story, old-school largely free-weight affair, often packed with a mostly male weight-lifting crowd.
One sweltering evening, I noticed how close they were, guys working out, close enough that they could almost hear one another breathing but yet totally comfortable and oblivious to the heat, smell and motion of another man curling a 30 pound dumbbell a foot from their face.
In another example, while in a Carl's Jr., I noticed every group of Mexicans in the place was eating in the same center section of the restaurant. Every table in the section was full. All the sections surrounding the center were empty, except for me of course.
Mexico is a warm country of low voices, soft vowels and close yet languid movement. The difference is part of what makes Mexico infinitely more calming, once you stop swimming upstream against its current. Once you stop fighting it, you might find how somehow reassuring it is.
In the Sci-fi movie “I Robot,” there is a scene in which hundreds of robots are huddled together in a storage unit, their eyes fearful and human, seeking comfort in the proximity of their kind. The fact that they are robots makes the scene even more poignant, they are so mechanized yet so human.
Maybe we are moved because we recognize ourselves in them, robots carefully constructing barriers in our lives and relationships only to realize that what we really want is to huddle.
Westerners have learned to physically distance ourselves at a cost, sacrificing the simple intimacy of a shared park bench or sitting on the same side of the table with a friend for something deemed safer. The customary kissing of cheeks with my Mexican girlfriends still feels a little foreign to me. What are we so afraid of?
I did not really accept this greater intimacy in Mexico as fact at first, and decided to test it. I often take a water taxi across the bay to reach the street from which I catch cabs or buses to El Centro. The water taxi is pretty large and has bench seats on each side that can accommodate probably 15 people each.
One day I boarded and seated myself next to the other passengers, even though I could have seated myself further away. They clearly didn't notice, while when people had done the same with me on other days in the past, I felt a violation of space, glancing at them when they took their seat.
I have taken these practices and applied them to my life when I'm in my stateside city of Denver. What I discovered was that a gentle touch on the shoulder of a listener, a request to sit on the same side of the table as a good friend or even just leaning in a few inches closer added a few precious moments of connection - moments we need every day.
Dating a Mexican just before moving to Mexico forewarned me of some topics I'd be needing to steer clear of. Ventanas Mexico
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Kerry Baker is a partner with Ventanas Mexico and author of the "Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online," a curation of the best Spanish language tools on the web, linked and organized into lesson plans. "If Only I Had a Place" is her book on renting luxuriously for less in Mexico.