Is this cultural miscommunication, or am I being scammed? How to proceed?
July 31, 2008 8:57 PM   Subscribe

Looking for advice about how to handle a cultural misunderstanding...or possibly a scam. Not sure how to reconcile the experience and associated feelings, and especially unsure about how to deal with the situation in the most sensitive and informed way.

I met and lived with an amazing family in Mexico recently. We shared stories and spent meals together and laughed a lot. I was looking forward to returning again the next year. A few days after I arrived home in the US, I received an email (in Spanish, but I am not fluent) from one of the family members, "Mary" (mid-30s, mother). She asked how I was doing and then launched into a story. Mary explained that she was walking around with a large sum of money (we're talking the equivalent of thousands of US dollars) and she was either robbed or lost the money. She went on to explain her financial problems, and also asked that I not say anything to her mother (giving the explanation that her heart was too delicate and she couldn't handle such news). Mary never outright asked for money, but her sharing of this info was awkward because we weren't THAT close to begin with.

I haven't responded to the email and I am not sure how to proceed. I certainly won't be offering any financial help, but I feel as though the relationship is now irrevocably damaged. Unless I am missing some nuance or cultural difference in this situation, I think this is an attempted scam. It breaks my heart, because I am now unsure whether its wise to keep in contact with any of the family members, and am questioning whether I should go back next year. I feel especially bad for the mother, if she is unaware of this behavior, and I would hate to lose the bond I (thought I) built with her (and Mary). I also wonder if this has happened to other guests, and if something should be mentioned or done about it? But most of all, I feel as though my wonderful, heartwarming experience of their gracious hospitality has been tainted, and this saddens me.

I have had past experiences to know that I am usually a pretty good judge of character. Mary's email comes as a complete surprise. Can this situation be repaired? How? How should I respond? Would it be foolish to think I could stay there again, or is that walking into drama?

Thanks for any insight on this situation!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe a passive response "I'm really sorry to hear that", etc. without offering to help might be appropriate and provide more insight as to her motives.

If she responds in a "we can get through this" manner, then there's nothing to worry about. (Perhaps you could provide some advice about not walking around with huge sums of cash, but I digress). If she responds with "what can you do to help me", then she may be scamming you. But I don't think there's a way to know without some interaction.

If I were in your shoes, I'd be cautiously optimistic and give the benefit of the doubt until she straight out hounds you for money.
posted by jeffrygardner at 9:11 PM on July 31, 2008 [2 favorites]

I have had past experiences to know that I am usually a pretty good judge of character. Mary's email comes as a complete surprise.

Is it possible that someone is using Mary's e-mail account? A wayward relative?
posted by desuetude at 9:18 PM on July 31, 2008

First, find someone who is fluent in Spanish to read the email for you, in case you are misreading the one key sentence that explains everything. (There are many bilingual people here on MeFi, and I'm sure it could be done anonymously if that were needed.)

Second, assuming that your initial reading of the email was correct, why not reply with a sympathetic-but-noncommittal email saying that you are sorry to hear the news, you hope Mama's heart remains good, bezos para todos, etc. See how she responds -- does she try and work you for money, or was she simply reporting some bad news to someone she liked as a friend?

Third, you don't give any details here, but obviously an average family in Mexico has a lot fewer resources than does an average family in the US. So something that comes into play here is what were the terms of your stay there -- were you freeloading as a guest, or were you making contributions to the household? Is it possible that this email is a way of signaling to you that their situation is difficult, but they provided you will all the resources they could offer when you were down there, and now are hoping that you will reciprocate financially?

From your point of view that may sound like a scam; from another point of view it may look more like an exchange. Again, this really, really hinges on the details, and there just isn't enough information here to make a confident assertion one way or the other.

My guess is that right now you simply don't have enough information to know for certain -- you need to continue the communication and listen to your gut on this. It's also quite possible that "Mary" is doing this behind the backs of the other family members, and the full story would be very different if everyone else were involved. Or maybe not -- again, we just don't know enough to say.
posted by Forktine at 9:22 PM on July 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Possible ***spoiler*** for "Eat, Pray, Love":

In that book, while the author is in Indonesia, she goes through a similar situation where a local, and someone she sees as a good friend, tries to get/scam some (extra) money out of her. At first she feels pretty harshly about it, but is reminded by someone who has lived in the area longer that this is just a survival mechanism. While Indonesians are probably much poorer than most Mexicans, I think it's safe to say that many Mexicans look at Americans, Canadians, Europeans, etc. as possessing much more than they ever will, so maybe Mary is just trying to seize the opportunity to better her life. It's nothing personal, just a desire for a better life for her.

I'd give her the benefit of the doubt, but even if it turns out the way you're predicting, try not to take it too personally.
posted by backwards guitar at 9:28 PM on July 31, 2008

It's not exactly a scam, she's very clearly hitting you for money. Fuck that. You should just answer "oh, that's too bad, I'm sorry." Maybe she won't ask again, but if she does she'll have to be more clear, which will be kind of embarrassing. I'm pretty sure that will solve your problem.

Cultural differences? Most Mexicans believe all people in the US, Canada or Europe are well-off. Maybe she thinks you won't miss the money. But even if that was true, what she did is very rude. You don't try to extort your guests, period.

I also wonder if this has happened to other guests
I think you should ask them. Did you meet them in a Spanish course or in a similar context which allows them to receive many foreigners? If she's taking advantage of this to ask for money, it must stop. It gives an horrible impression of our country.
posted by clearlydemon at 9:37 PM on July 31, 2008

Also, feel free to mail me if you want to ask specific questions or to translate anything you don't understand.
posted by clearlydemon at 9:38 PM on July 31, 2008

I remember reading an article posted here on Lagos (don't know where though), and how basically EVERYONE in the city tries to scam you. If they don't know you, they will try to get money from you. If you say no, well...ok, wanna go get some beers? Oh yeah, that money thing, well, y'know, had to try, right? Sorry about that. I have no idea about Mexico, but now, living in China, where I meet some pretty dirt-poor people, nobody but scammers try to rip me off. People are actually apt to smack you if you try something like that on them, and anybody with a sob story gets greeted with skepticism. I've had friends who haven't told me about financial difficulties for months for fear of losing the friendship.

So obviously, cultural attitudes about these things vary. I'd say this is a scam if she gave you no indicators of being the kind of person who'd complain about things. If she was the kind of person who complained about the weather, then she's just whining to a friend.

I would say a litmus test might be actually offering help. Ask if there's anything you can do, and if they say, "No, we're covered, we'll handle this", then you're in the clear to keep your friendship with them. If not, well, a politely worded letter about not appreciating being scammed would do it.
posted by saysthis at 10:27 PM on July 31, 2008

For what it's worth, here is my Mexican anecdote: Years ago, I worked at a steel company and I handled the Volkswagen de Mexico account along with my boss. One requirement of doing business with them was providing not only the purchasing agents, but also their family members with expensive gifts (jewelry, small electronics, etc.) I recall one afternoon the main purchasing agent phoned me to lament that the last three gifts she'd received from us (very nice pieces of gold jewelry) had been in her bowling bag, and her bowling bag had been stolen from her car. I was perplexed at first...why would someone keep their bracelets and necklaces in a bowling bag in their car? And, if said car was burglarized, why tell me about it? We eventually twigged onto the fact that she wanted more jewelry. Over the years, we got more bizarre and blatant requests: for example, one purchasing guy asked us to help (i.e. provide money) his brother buy a bowling alley.

I'm thinking that the family is definitely fishing for money (you are, after all, a wealthy American), and I would simply express dismay at their misfortune and offer sympathy and leave it at that.
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:23 AM on August 1, 2008

Express dismay at their misfortune AND tell a bit about your life at the moment, mentioning offhandedly how money is very tight for you, too!
posted by By The Grace of God at 2:05 AM on August 1, 2008

Pretend you didn't get the email and NO you should not stay there again. Call me a cynic, but that could be a dangerous situation if you tried to stay with them in the future.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 1:07 PM on August 1, 2008

It is a scam. Don't contact her again.

I can't count the times this sort of thing happened to me in Kyrgyzstan. Everybody needs money, and you can't save the world. Don't be a chump.
posted by Meatbomb at 10:09 AM on August 9, 2008

I am from Colombia, I know this kind of people. and I give you the best advice :

Desapear from their life!!!!!!!!!!!!! They are trying to GET MONEY OF YOU!!!!!!! don't be fool!! delete and bloke their email.

Take care.
posted by zulo at 3:04 PM on August 15, 2008

« Older What's going on with my digestive system?   |   Stop the political spam! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.