Mexican Manners 1

Have you ever wondered what to do when meeting or greeting someone, or what is expected for simple social interactions like visiting or giving/receiving a gift? Today’s article will cover greeting people, gifts, visiting or hosting, and birthday hugs. Yes–birthday hugs, it’s a thing. 

Greeting someone

If you know this person and are friends, and one of you is female, you’ll air-kiss on the right cheek. An “air-kiss” is when the right cheeks slightly touch and a kiss happens somewhere in the air, there beside the ear.  Men will clap-shake hands and if friendly, add an embrace with a pat on the back or shoulder with the left hand. “Clap-shake” is my own term: I observe men as they greet, approaching and achieving a sound of trapped air in their clap-shake. It’s said that the deeper the sound of the clap, the deeper the friendship. Is it important to work on your “clap-shake”? No, but here’s a tip, just cup your palm a bit more than usual and swing the arm back for greater momentum as you go in for the handshake. 

But what if you are not friends? Meeting someone for the first time a simple handshake is definitely in order for all, and between women, perhaps an air-kiss. The level of contact will be influenced by what sort of relationship is implied (Is it a party? Cocktails? Business event? Appointment? Class? On the street?) and your age–younger, more casual, older, more formal. 

If the person is a business associate, or doing something for you (lawyer, real estate agent, office bureaucrat, contractor, teacher, etc.), you’ll usually shake hands only, regardless of gender. Include a greeting: a little Buenas Tardes goes a long way in this warm latin culture. People from North America are considered a bit rude when we express our business directly without having said a greeting first. If the person is a domestic employee, it’s customary to speak a greeting upon seeing one another, with no handshake necessary. 


Mexicans will freely hug in many situations that are familiar to North Americans, but there are two distinct moments where it is almost required that the parties hug, in a way that is a bit different than our own: birthdays and gifts.  You may have noticed that when a Mexican discovers it is your birthday they will approach you for a hug, even if you have recently already embraced in greeting. It’s a thing that one does on birthdays, and it also applies when you find out it’s someone’s birthday.  This crosses all the class lines–including, for example, your domestic employees, local taco vendor, or anyone else you wouldn’t hug otherwise. I think of it as a gift–where one size fits all, and works for any budget. DO do the birthday hug.

On that note, the gift. When you receive a gift, whether you open it in that moment or will open it later, the giver and receiver will hug. Again, this applies similarly to the birthday hug in that you will hug again even if you recently hugged upon greeting.   Let’s say you’re attending a birthday party bearing a gift: expect to hug twice. 

Cultural tip: be careful complimenting a specific item a person is wearing–they are very likely to take it off and give it to you either in that moment, or later, if it is a garment they are wearing. I am always careful to compliment that the item in question looks good on them. That way, I won’t trigger this beautiful, entirely-too-generous gesture that is part of Mexican culture. 

Food and Drink for Guests

Expect to be offered, and accept, something to drink when at someone’s house, and offer something to drink if anyone comes to yours. Even if all you have is water, do offer something. Generally speaking, I accept the beverage (requesting water, if it’s an unexpected visit on my part) because to not accept could be perceived as a slight. Hospitality is a very important value. Also, if anyone has anything that others around do not have (a snack, even a plate of food in a restaurant), it is polite to offer if anyone would like some. This is taught to children very young, and is considered selfish to not offer it around. “¿Gustan?” is the term used for this gesture.  Must you take some of what is offered? Not necessarily: if it’s obviously their dinner, it’s expected to graciously refuse. If it’s a bag of chips or other small item, easy enough to take a small amount, I will do so for the sake of courtesy. However, it’s not considered rude to refuse these small amounts either, but do smile and say “muy amable”–how kind of you to offer. 

Intercultural encounters are the very best way to learn Spanish and integrate into the communities we inhabit. They enrich our lives beyond measure, providing points of contact within a warm culture that values human connection and hospitality. 

Elsanne Barrows