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Mexicans are very polite and can seem downright formal compared to residents of other Spanish-speaking countries. People greet each other in elevators, on buses, and shared taxis almost always with “con permiso,” — “with your permission,” — and “propio” — “you may grant your own permission, as you don’t need mine.”

I love all this about Mexican culture. However, it took me a long time to realize that, because of all the politeness, Mexicans really struggle to say “no” and will find any number of ways to avoid the accursed word. Here are just a few examples.

1. Yes

It’s very common in Mexico that yes means no. Yes, really! Imagine leaving a business meeting with a lively “Yes!” from a potential client and never hearing from them again. Imagine inviting a friend out for drinks, them saying “Yes!” and then never turning up. Imagine asking someone to marry you and them answering with a resounding “Yes!” and…ok maybe that is taking it a little too far. If you want to live in Mexico, you need to perfect the art of deciphering the true meaning of the yes.

Example from my life:

Me: [walks into a framing shop, where I left some prints a week earlier] “Hi, are my prints ready?”
Shop Assistant: “Yes.”
Me: “Great! Can I see them?”
Shop Assistant: “Yes.” [doesn’t move]
Me: “Super, where are they?”
Shop Assistant: “Well….erm….the glass on one isn’t in place yet and the other is drying.”
Me: “So they aren’t ready?”
Shop Assistant: “Erm…well”
Me: “What you’re saying is that they aren’t ready, right?”
Shop Assistant: “Yes.”

This time the yes actually means yes.

2. Maybe

In order to decipher the yes, I suggest you start with the maybe, it can be slightly easier to determine. Maybes seem to come in two forms — the real maybe, which holds hope, and the definite-no maybe. They can be distinguished by tone; in my experience, the higher the pitch the more likely your maybe is a yes. Mexicans also have a whole plethora of words that they can use to mean maybe — tal vez, quizá, igual, estaría bien, etc. — so I warn you that just when you think you’ve got it they might hit you with a curveball.

Example from my life:

Me: “Do you want to come over for breakfast?”
Mexican friend: “Erm, ye…maybe. I have to do some things but…hmmm…maybe, that could be good, I’ll see you there”
Me: “Ok, bye.”

I make breakfast for one.

3. Thank you

The expression “No, thank you” is rarely heard in Mexico. Instead, you will hear just a very grateful sounding “Thank you.” When I first arrived in Mexico, it confused me because if someone used that tone to say thank you in England it would mean a resounding “Thank you very much!” You will mainly hear this used to let someone selling something know that you don’t want it, but, of course, you must let it seem like you are very glad they offered it to you.

Example from my life:

Person selling stuff on the beach: “Sarongs, sarongs, hats, necklaces.”
Me: “No, gracias.”
Seller: “Buy from me miss.” [shows off his wares until after about 20 minutes he moves on realizing I won’t buy anything]
Seller: “Sarongs, sarongs, hats, necklaces”
My Mexican Boyfriend: [very grateful sounding] “Gracias.”

Seller keeps walking and I nearly choke on my piña colada.

4. Estamos en contacto

“We’ll be in touch,” sounds like a phrase you might use on a bad date. Here, however, it can be used in many situations to avoid saying “No, I am not interested in what you are offering me,” without needing to let the dreaded NO pass your lips.

Example from my life:

Pushy Neighbor insisting my roommate and I move into a house she is renting: “You have to come and see it. It is so beautiful and has lots of room and it’s very secure.”
Us: “No thanks. We are very happy here.” [you are renting your brother’s house!]
Pushy neighbor: “Well, just come and see it. When works for you? I will pick you up and take you there.”
Us: “No really, thank you, but we like living here and we are still under contract.”
Pushy Neighbor: “How about Friday? I’ll wait outside at say 2?”
My clever roommate: “Of course, señora, give me your number and estamos en contacto.”

Pushy Neighbor never bothers us again.

5. Ahorita

Literally meaning “little now,” ahorita generally means that something may or may not happen in the near or distant future. For example, if a child is told to do their homework, rather than say no, they might say ahorita.

When I first arrived it confused me to no end. I asked if the ice cream seller had chocolate and she said she had run out but would be getting some “ahorita.” Me thinking, well, ahorita must mean “right now” so I waited…and I waited until I realized that ahorita, for all intents and purposes, means no. Ahorita can be interchanged with “al rato” (in a bit) to confuse the situation just a little more.

Examples from my life:

Me: “Is the doctor here?”
Receptionist:Ahorita llega.” Translation: No, but he will be here at some indeterminate time in the future.

Me: “Would you like some cake?”
Mother in Law:Ahorita.” Translation: No, not right now.