The Postscript by Carrie Classon

Understanding A Misunderstanding

Every day, whether here in Mexico or in the US, I take a walk. Walking in the morning would be nice, but that’s when I write, so, in the afternoon, I head out to see what the world looks like.

I always greet a lot of people on my walk, no matter which country I am in. I talk to dogs if there are dogs involved, or I comment on the weather, or I compliment what someone is wearing, or I simply say, “Hello.”

I do pretty much the same thing in either country, and my ability to converse with dogs in Spanish has improved dramatically, but there is one complication in Mexico that I do not encounter in the US, and I have taken to calling it the “Hola Hour.”

Because what one typically says in the afternoon to a stranger (unless I am complimenting their hat or their dog or noting the imminence of rain) is simply, “Buenas tardes,” (“Good afternoon!”)

In English, this sounds a little formal, but teenagers and old women and shopkeepers and street workers all say it. It is the universal greeting—until it isn’t.

As it turns to night, everyone naturally starts saying, “Buenas noches,” (“Good evening.”) This seems pretty straightforward, but determining when to stop saying “Good afternoon” and start saying “Good evening” is far more complicated than it seems.

I used to think there was some magic time that changed incrementally as the season changed, and everyone knew they should start saying “Good evening.” But I could never determine when this was. Was it completely dark? No. Perhaps it was just as the sun set? Not necessarily. Maybe it was the quality of light or when the streetlights turned on?

I would sometimes ask for a clarification; “Is it evening? Or is it still afternoon?” Whoever I asked would scan the sky and give me an answer that sounded very certain. I assumed this knowledge of when afternoon changed definitively to night was something one must be born in the culture to learn, and I would never be able to make this determination on my own.

But I don’t think I was correct.

Because in this twilight time—with the sun either up or down, depending on your altitude, or the buildings in the way, or the number of trees, or the density of clouds, or any number of other complications in this brief time of less than an hour—I don’t think anyone knows.

And the reason I believe this is because people start saying “Hola.” They simply say “Hello.”

It’s a simple solution. No one wants to get it wrong. No one wants to get into an argument about it. So, when it’s too close to call, people start saying “Hola” to me instead of “Good afternoon,” before they’ve begun to say, “Good evening.”

I shared my theory with Jorge, the owner of our hotel. It was a slightly complicated thing to explain in Spanish, but Jorge is very patient. In the past, I had asked Jorge, “Is it afternoon? Or is it evening?” and Jorge, like everyone else I asked before, claimed to know exactly which it was.

But when I shared my theory about the “Hola Hour,” he laughed. And he said, “It is true.”

Jorge looked just a little embarrassed, as though I’d discovered a secret. And I was pleased.

It takes a very long time to understand another culture, and there are many things I will never know. But I feel much better prepared for the Hola Hour tomorrow.

Till next time,


– Carrie Classon is a freelance writer and author and lives in New Mexico. Her columns appear each week.