One thing that often puzzles observers from the U.S. about Mexico is the apparent dichotomy between how Mexicans behave at the personal level, and how they manifest themselves in anonymity. Thus, your Mexican friend is willing to do anything for you in times of need, but that same person – when driving a car – is willing to run over anybody.
Even Mexicans have confusing ways of explaining themselves. Mexicans often regard the culture as “selfish,” and people in it “only interested in themselves.” Yet, at the same time, they recognize that the bond between friends and family members is much stronger and long-lasting than in the U.S.
Thus, defining the character of Mexicans appears difficult, but it is not. There is in the Mexican culture a very decisive division between my inner circle and those who are outsiders. The treatment to members of my inner circle, and the treatment I expect from them is of incredible solidarity, even unconditional support and friendship. But the rest of the world is full of people, who cannot be trusted – and either you do it to them, or they will do it to you.
Thus, to establish any important relationship you must find ways to belong to the inner circle, or at least to belong to another circle close to the one you are trying to reach. According to Mexican anthropologist Larissa Lomnitz, Mexican society is build around horizontal and vertical networks, which are used to doing a number of favors, not the least is about jobs and business in general.
A recent survey published in the credible Mexican newspaper Reforma shows that one in three persons in Mexico knows of someone who got a job or a business deal because of someone they knew in the government.
So we can safely say this is a society of “who do you know” in an extreme form.
But what can someone who is not Mexican do? How do you access those circles? Can’t I just do my business without spending so much time being accepted, or be considered a member of the inner circle?
I ask these questions because the U.S. is precisely the opposite: It is know-how, not know-whom that counts the most in a business. And while knowing people is always useful, it is not necessary. Furthermore, many Americans prefer not to mix business with personal issues, so they would rather not socialize in business dealings.
The easy answer is that if you come to Mexico, you’d better be prepared to spend all the needed time to establish personal connections if you hope to have a business in the country. But that, in my experience, is not very easy for someone who simply has never done it. So what do you tell this person? Just don’t bother?
Fortunately, there is another way of doing business in Mexico, without being a member of the inner circle. That way is called quality. Any business that can actually deliver quality will also do well, since quality is often scarce. Quality is delivering on your promises, offering a truly quality product and service, basically being a decent professional business. The market will eventually recognize this, and some people actually want a good product, not simply to help a friend or a relative.
As a consultant in both the U.S. and Mexico, I know that some opportunities are lost to me because I do not belong to the inner circle, or I refuse to give a bribe (which is not as often as people think). But I eventually get clients who want a good consultant, enough to keep me busy. Like me, many people and business in Mexico survive just fine without having immediate access to the circles of power, or having to bribe people, they simply are good.
And strangely, as you get your reputation for simply being good, you find it so much easier to access those inner circles that seemed so closed not long ago.