The Mañana Syndrome: Get Used to It

The cultures of the US and Northern Europe operate on a timer.  We expect to know our own futures and then catch up to them without a wrinkle.  Changes in expectations are unnerving.  Not so in much of the rest of the world.  Here are a few examples:

If you ask an airport employee in Mexico City if a certain flight will arrive on time, you get only a confused look.  The employee doesn’t know the future and wouldn’t presume to tell you if a plane will arrive on time or not.  If you ask the same employee which gate a plane will come to after it has landed, you’ll get the same strange look.

When you drop your suits off at a dry cleaner’s place in Santiago, you ask, “When will they be ready?”  Odd silence follows.  The attendant replies, “Tuesday”.  That means, in cultural translation, “I have no idea.  They’ll be done when they get done.”  If you return on Tuesday expecting to pick up your newly-pressed suits, you are off base.  Work gets done when it gets done.  If you are a friend of the cleaner, it gets done sooner.  If you cause trouble, it gets done later.  If you raise a big stink and fuss, it gets done quickly, but they hope to never see you or your clothes again.

You ask a cobbler in Casablanca to repair the worn soles of your shoes.  You then ask what it will cost.  He replies, “Five dollars”, or the equivalent in local currency.  You come back the following week and learn that the cost will be eight dollars.  You ask why.  (Wrong move.)  He explains that he ran out of sole leather before he got to your shoes and had to buy more at a higher price.  What do you do?  Report him to the Better Business Bureau?  Forget it.  Pay the eight dollars and take your shoes.  He wants your return business and has given you a fair price.

These changes in projections are changes in expectations to those outside the culture, thus causing stress.  But to those inside the culture, they are the natural truth of life and its wrinkles, and cause no stress.  You get to choose.

The Arabs say “Bukra, in-sha’ Allah”, which means “Tomorrow, God willing” but which also means, “I don’t know.”  When you ask if they can repair your VCR, they say, “Fiish mushkila”, which means “No problem”, but which also means, “I’ve never done it before, but I think I can figure it out.”

It is wrong to believe that merchants and service providers in such cultures will eventually see things your way and adhere to strict schedules and a firm bottom line.  Instead, they will constantly see you as demanding and difficult.

At the other end of the spectrum, if you leave your suits with a German cleaner, he will tell you to pick them up next Tuesday at two.  If you show up at four, he scowls at you because the suits have been hanging at his front counter for 2 hours.

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