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Live or Retire in Mexico AND keep your Belongings: Cultural Differences in Loaning Things

Written by: Julia Taylor

Why does everyone keep my stuff? Can't people just share without taking things? When I first lived in Mexico, I felt trapped into being more generous than I wanted to be. It took me a couple YEARS to figure out that the cultural signals that indicate the flexibility with which you are loaning something are very different. Before you live or retire in Mexico, if you learn the nuances of loaning things you will give the correct signals and have a greater likelihood of receiving your things back.

Just as back home, there are folks who are more likely to return things than others. In Mexico you have to judge these people pretty much the way you would back in the U.S. and Canada. You know how much you trust the person, how understanding they are, how often you see them, etc. Unlike back in the US and Canada, untrustworthy people will push you to loan them things. If you have something that you really don't want to loan to anyone, don't let them even know you have it. Because of the taboo on saying "no" you could find yourself in a real pinch if someone asks you to borrow something from which you just cannot be separated. Feelings can be badly bruised if you say "no" outright.


Once, the daughter of a trusted person asked me if she could borrow my English dictionary. In seconds the following thoughts flashed through my mind: I thought she would want to take it to school to use during her English class and I imagined the pressures that would be placed on her to let others use it and how easy it would be for someone to take it from her. I thought of how much it would cost in pesos to replace it and how it would have to be sent to me from the US.

I thought "no."

I said, "no."

The poor dear's face fell and there was this awkward silence. I had definitely said the wrong thing. She felt terrible. I felt terrible. Then, I tried to recuperate by saying that she could use it at my house any time she wanted, but it was too late. The damage was done.


When you retire in Mexico, you don't want to insult your new friends and neighbors, so here's what you can do:


If you are definitely not going to loan something, you may still want to give a vague yes answer, but avoid setting any specifics. Then when it comes time to loan the item, don't be home, have your door closed and pretend you are taking a nap, ask the person to come back for it later because you are going to use it that very night to do such-and-such, yadda yadda yadda. Use whatever you can come up with. This is called "poniendo peros" in Spanish, which means "giving buts." It is the tried and true system of saying yes, but creating so many blocks that the other person either tires of asking or realizes you don't really want to share. It works well, but don't overuse it. You will be labeled as selfish and the dreaded punishment is being "talked about," which leaves you outside of the reciprocity system that drives most friendships in Mexico.


Since you have to say "yes" at least sometimes, you need to know phrases that clearly tell the other person that you want the item back. One of these phrases is, "te lo encargo mucho." This means "I'm really trusting you with this." It's a phrase that is said in situations where we don't need a phrase in Canada and the U.S. I use it often in the office for loaning things like the only roll of tape, the good scissors, etc. to my coworkers.

Since up north people generally bring back items that you have loaned to them right after they finish using them, I didn't know that I needed to say anything. In Mexico, if you don't say anything, it looks like you don't care if you get the item back, so people just leave it lying around wherever when they finish using it. Here you have to at least glance at the person and, as you are placing the item into their hand, say the magic phrase in a quiet, but serious tone. It works wonders and for me spelled relief from living without any office supplies.


Another magic phrase that you need to know when you live or retire in Mexico is "give it back to me later" or, in Spanish, "Despues me lo das." This one clarifies the fact that you are in fact LOANING something and not GIVING it to them. This one gives the "loanee" some time to use the item, but clearly establishes that they are, in fact, borrowing the item. Again, tell them this in the moment that you are giving it to them, but use a casual, friendly tone of voice. If you don't remind them that they are borrowing something, they may never bring it back.


I used to try asking the person when they would give it back, which must have been a successful strategy back home in the Pacific Northwest, but only resulted in confusion and suspicious looks from the borrower. Don't bother with that strategy.

Using the above strategies and phrases will greatly reduce friction with your new friends and neighbors and make the transition easier when you live or retire in Mexico.--jt

About the author:

Julia Taylor has been living in Mexico for 4 years as an American expat. She shares her extensive cultural knowledge with those who want to live or retire in Mexico. To learn more about cultural differences, safety, making friends, setting up a home, getting around, and much more see her website at http://www.home-sweet-mexico.com

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