Is It Them or Us? Latines and the Issue of Politeness

Latine Politeness BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of BELatina.

I remember the first time that I heard my non-Latine friend respond to their mom with a “what” when they couldn’t hear her from the other room — I was shocked. 

In my bilingual brain, “what” translated to “¿que?” in Spanish. At least in my Latine family, we always respond to elders with a “¿mande?” 

It’s an unwritten rule that a “¿que?” is considered a lack of manners, especially towards a parent or tia, and don’t get me started towards a grandparent!

Additionally, “mande” comes from “mándame,” which translates to “command me,” which is way more of a polite gesture in our community. It’s a form of respect rather than an act of being “submissive” in our culture. 

Although the phrase remains a controversial subject to some — since it dates back to the colonial era — it was the way I was raised and how many Latines continue to address our elders. But could this be a bad thing now that we are older and deal with different types of people?

Understanding the code

Being polite is ingrained in our Latine culture. We do more than asked for; we are empathetic to other people’s problems — and if we could somehow help, we know that we 100% will. Our culture always tries to help out, even if it’s something so basic and straightforward that the receiver could do by themselves. After all, why not help someone in need? 

As Latines, we are raised to avoid being rude. For example, we couldn’t just buy one ice cream in my Mexican household. If we were treating ourselves with a particular item and someone else was home, we had to offer all of them the treat. “No lo comas delante de todos si no hay suficiente para todos [don’t eat it in front of everyone if there’s not enough for everyone],” my mom always says. 

It was bad manners to enjoy your paleta as a kid without sharing — and in the end, if you rebelled against offering everyone, it wasn’t even worth it since your cousins would just end up staring at you and somehow make you feel bad anyway. 

This code was taught and embedded in us since we were children. What little we had, we could and should offer others; and that brought us happiness.

Are Latines raised to be overly thoughtful, though? 

Is being polite ingrained in us so deep that we don’t know what the American norm actually is?

Furthermore, is this a sign of why we tend to overwhelm ourselves with our workloads, why we tend to give more than we should, or an actual cause to why we end up code-switching? How could we notice this and balance our upbringing mannerisms now in our adult lives — especially in our workplace and in our relationships with people that weren’t necessarily raised in a Latine household?

It’s tough to recognize the boundaries and respect expected from us, especially in sour situations where people can confuse our “politeness” as a weakness. Personally speaking, as someone who has immigrant parents, it’s challenging to take what they experienced at work as normal and for me to continue the same path. 

Looking back, we now know that it wasn’t normal, but it was a way for them to survive at the time. They were using survival methods – they were used to not speaking up and were raised under the “calladita te ves más bonita” type of restraint. But it wasn’t their fault — it was the way they knew how to quietly make moves and ultimately provide for their children’s future. 

Now look at us; we are learning not to be quiet. We are learning to be loud, not only for our children and us but for our parents who couldn’t even show a tad of disrespect in any aspect of their lives.

In this process, however, there are times that we still automatically sugarcoat our personalities by catering to the receiver. In some ways, we use tactics that are responses to our need to be polite. Tactics such as code-switching. While most of us are working to break that cycle and show our authentic selves in the corporate world and beyond, some of us are still unconsciously adjusting ourselves to please others. And that’s not a lack of revolution: it’s still resilience and the necessary process of figuring out how to incorporate the way we were raised — politeness and all — to get what we want. There are ways to balance out our culture’s mannerisms to fit the American lifestyle without feeling inauthentic. Our elders (whether they were by blood or our chosen family) did such a great job raising our generation that even though the anti-rudeness is ingrained in us, we can still use this as our shield. After all, kindness is not a weakness. It’s just the Latine way of being.