Favors are done in every culture, but how favors are given and received differs among cultures. Comparing the mainstream U.S. culture and Mexico regarding this issue, we find striking differences, which often lead to important misunderstandings among people.
In the U.S., informal favors are seen as voluntary actions, which nevertheless create a sense of debt from the other person. Ideally, friends (and even relatives), should be debt-free, so that the relationship is not muddled or confused by the fact that one person “owes” something to the other. An example is that it would be common for one person to keep a strict account of how many times she or he has given rides to a friend’s children, and vice-versa. The zone of comfort is when all is even. Even when borrowing very small amounts of money, people feel strongly pressured to pay it back, and expect to be paid back. This has nothing to do with being stingy (although often people from other cultures may see it that way), but rather as a way to liberate the relationship from debts, and thus facilitate a healthy relationship.
That is why people in the U.S. feel comfortable about saying things like “I owe you one!” when someone has done a favor for him/her, or even to say “you owe me one!” when he/she is doing a favor for someone else.
In Mexico nobody ever says “you owe me one,” as that might be seen as reminding the other person that, when I need a favor, I can call on you to give it to me. That is implicit in the culture. Mexican culture is distinguished by an endless process of favors being given and received all the time within the circles of trust, especially the family and very close friends. Larissa Lomnitz, a well-known Mexican anthropologist, has described probably better than anyone else how this system of mutual favors helps poor people survive, and generally how it plays an important function in an economy were much of what takes place is informal, rather than formal. In economic terms, this is referred to as “moral economy.”
It is not to say that in some way Mexicans are not counting or aren’t aware of how tilted the favor might be. Thus, if a friend of mine and I go out, and I keep paying for the bill, eventually I will make a judgment, and think or say something like this: “Gee, this guy is something. He never offers to pay.” However, strict accounts are not kept, as they are emotionally internalized as the termination of a relationship. “You count all favors when you are ending a relationship, just like in a divorce,” is the way a sociologist friend of mine says about Mexicans.
Another important difference is that equality of favors is measured in the U.S. in absolute terms (i.e., I lend you so much money, I expect you will lend me the same amount one day), where in Mexico the sense of fairness of mutual favors is that each is giving according to their possibilities. A sort of equality of efforts, so to speak. Thus, my very rich friend would not expect me to pay for as many dinners as I would, but would rather see the relative effort that I give in returning the factors. The effort for the rich friend to invite me to $1,000.00 worth of meals, may be equivalent to the effort for me of $100. If both side this as equitable (in efforts) nobody feels bad. Furthermore, the sense of equality may originate that each gives the type of favors they are able to give best, not necessarily the same category of favors. For example, my friend may bail me out when I need money, and I may be a good shoulder to cry on
The key difference – one culture seeking to be on precise equal and debt-free situation, and the other looking for a relationship in which favors are given and received constantly – leads to mutual misunderstanding. A Mexican might view the mainstream U.S. behavior as selfish, and as signifying “I really do not want to either give or receive favors,” which is a denial of friendship or closeness. And an American living in Mexico often feels saturated by the constant “nagging” of Mexicans to either do a favor for you, or to ask for one. Both sides misunderstand each other. This also has implications when doing business in Mexico, but that is a topic for another column.
Even before that happens, let’s make it clear: You owe me one.