Intercultural Communication: A Practical Guide
By Tracy Novinger
Do you often find yourself frustrated or confused in your business or social interactions in Mexico? Do you feel like your simple, reasonable or logical requests are often met with incomprehension, disdain or indifference? Do you sometimes find yourself in situations that are inexplicable, flabbergasting or infuriating? Welcome to the world of culture clash, where just because it is different does not mean it is wrong…and just because it does not seem logical does not mean that it isn’t.
Cultures have been clashing, probably since the very first humans left their homes and went exploring. Every country has its stories of invaders coming in and finding the natives to be heathens, pagans, and uncivilized brutes. (The natives—it should be no surprise to find out—felt exactly the same about the intruders.) These early cultural clashes often resulted in wars, massacres and the overthrow of civilizations, but even our modern non-violent culture clashes can leave more than confusion in their wake. Intercultural interaction, especially in this age of globalization, is a modern reality, and not only for people who choose to live outside of their native countries. The world has gotten smaller in every possible way and our business and social interactions are now being played out on an international field—a playing field fraught with invisible obstacles. Rest assured, there are rules to every game—even if they aren’t the rules you learned at home.
Venturing out into this totally new territory, you will do well to find a guide to assist you, and luckily one exists. With a multicultural, multilingual background and a lifetime of traveling, Tracy Novinger knows about culture differences. She has written a book, Intercultural Communication, A Practical Guide, which should be required reading for anyone who lives in Mexico, does business in Mexico, or is considering doing either. Hans Durrer, writer, interpreter and intercultural coach, says of Novinger’s book, “This is a well-written tome with plenty of telling anecdotes, full of clever insights and enjoyable to read: a book that sharpened my cultural radars and made me feel enriched.”
Communication barriers are often thought to be language-based, but language is just the tip of the iceberg. Novinger spent seven years researching this book and wrote it while she was getting her master’s degree in Communications. Having spent her childhood and young adulthood in multiple countries and fluent in English, Portuguese, French and Spanish, she became attracted to the study of intercultural communication after noticing her own communication style would differ depending on the language she was speaking. She sometimes felt as if she had multiple personalities, so distinctive were her interactions in one language or another. Novinger began to realize it was not merely her language fluency that allowed her to communicate effectively, but the nonverbal cues she was expressing, contributed as well. These cues played very different roles in different cultures. More importantly, being able to understand these nonverbal cues was the difference between effective communication and misunderstanding. This realization led her to pursue advanced studies in communication and to write two books on the topic.
In our home environments, being able to share ideas and effortlessly communicate one’s thoughts, wishes, or needs is something we often take for granted. The amount of misunderstanding routinely faced in foreign environments, whether they are language-based, culture-based, or both, can be overwhelming. These miscommunications can leave you feeling isolated or alienated on the personal level, and can cost you money and opportunity on the professional level. Whether your interactions in Mexico are for business or for pleasure, a little understanding of the cultural forces at work under the surface can go a long way in alleviating the amount of frustration and friction you experience (or cause).
-Originally published in December 2007)
Tracy Novinger has an M.A. in Communications and has written two books on intercultural communication published by UT Press, and available on Amazon.com.
She speaks English, Portuguese, French and Spanish, and has some knowledge of other languages. Ms. Novinger was born on the island of Aruba where three generations of her family lived. She then went to school in Portuguese in Brazil from age ten until she began university studies. After graduation, she lived and worked in French-speaking Tahiti for nine years. She has a home in Mexico and travels extensively. She has, in fact, “lived” intercultural communication her whole life and has the ability to step in and out of several cultural worlds.
Ms. Novinger wrote a series of articles for ADIP in the 2007-2008 season. You can find them in the ADIP archives (January, February, March 2008)
Hans Durrer is the author of “Ways of Perception: On Visual and Intercultural Communication (White Lotus Press, Bangkok, 2006); his homepage is http://hansdurrer.com; his blog http://durrer-intercultural.blogspot.com