The problem about asking directions in Mexico: people want to please you so much that they’ll say almost anything to avoid saying no, they don’t know. In fact, you pretty much just don’t say no here.
We norteamericanos see answering yes to save face and not to actual intent as a teeny stretch of the truth, just short of an out-and-out lie. The other side of the coin (which is not heads or tails but eagle or sun) is that when we – honestly, we think – give a straight-up no, it’s considered incredibly rude and brusque.
Take favors, for instance. Mexicans do, all the time, in a way that is confusing and imposing to those of us not raised in the intercambio culture of necessary favor barter. You can’t just go out and get what you want or need most of the time, so you create a favor library that allows you to check out return favors when it’s your turn. The expression is Hoy por tí, mañana por mi (today for you, tomorrow for me), or I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.
A friend, who lived in Oaxaca for several years and married a Mexican, told me early on that you should bracket the response to every favor question as “certainly, if I could, I would.” Nobody, but nobody, will just say no, they can’t do that because of time or money (or because they just flat don’t feel like it). They would like to, indeed they would love to, but sadly it might just not be possible. This is also where the handy Mexican notion allowing for the hand of God comes in. I might plan to fulfill your favor with all of my heart, but alas, the universe may not allow it despite my best intentions.
Take a random favor, say: “Susana, could you fly to the moon and bring me back a moon rock?” After many years here of framing what I thought were honest responses but just confirmed the notion of gringos being selfish and non-cooperative, I now know how to answer. “Yes, I would LOVE to do that, and in fact am contemplating going to the moon quite soon. If and when I do, it would be such an honor to bring you back a moon rock! I must tell you that there is the slightest possibility that sadly, because of time and money, I may not make the trip soon, but when I do you will be the first to get a souvenir rock!”
Since I go back and forth to the states a fair amount, I’m often asked to bring back things from the land of plenty: books, vitamins, umbrellas, video games, clothes, shoes, cooking utensils, you name it. (“Oh great!” one retired half of an elderly couple exclaimed on meeting me. “Someone else to bring back our prescription medicine!” I did say flat no to that one.)
If I said yes to every request, I wouldn’t be able to haul my already heavy bags through Customs. I emulate the Mexican model now, and don’t say no; just maybe. Maybe I will have the time, energy and wherewithal to do so. And then again, maybe not. But we don’t need to get into that right now.
Honestly, I do get the underlying social structure of favor barter. You depend on your family, friends and neighbors because you can’t necessarily depend on the government to protect you. Through centuries of conquistadors imposing their cultures on you, you just smile and say to survive: I really, really intend to cooperate here. And all appearances will show that I do.
The great thing is that people in the states really want to be helpful and useful, so when I go back to Texas I send an advance bulletin of things I’m looking to collect: everyone’s downsizing and cleaning house anyway, and it kills two birds with one stone that it helps somebody else. Orphan sheets, towels, kitchen ware and more find happy new homes here with people who don’t care much about color coordinating.
In first world countries, time is definitely money and we protect our private space so fiercely that others don’t dare impinge on it. Here, time is just time – and I’ll need some of yours after I give you a little of mine.