Intercultural Communication

[ Latin American Studies ]

Intercultural Communication

A Practical Guide

By Tracy Novinger

An authoritative, practical guide for deciphering and following "the rules" that govern cultures, with a demonstration of how these rules apply to the communication issues that exist between the United States and Mexico.



33% website discount price

This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.


6 x 9 | 224 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-75571-0

Successfully communicating with people from another culture requires learning more than just their language. While fumbling a word or phrase may cause embarrassment, breaking the unspoken cultural rules that govern personal interactions can spell disaster for businesspeople, travelers, and indeed anyone who communicates across cultural boundaries. To help you avoid such damaging gaffes, Tracy Novinger has compiled this authoritative, practical guide for deciphering and following "the rules" that govern cultures, demonstrating how these rules apply to the communication issues that exist between the United States and Mexico.

Novinger begins by explaining how a major proportion of communication within a culture occurs nonverbally through behavior and manners, shared attitudes, common expectations, and so on. Then, using real-life examples and anecdotes, she pinpoints the commonly occurring obstacles to communication that can arise when cultures differ in their communication techniques. She shows how these obstacles come into play in contacts between the U.S. and Mexico and demonstrates that mastering the unspoken rules of Mexican culture is a key to cementing business and social relationships. Novinger concludes with nine effective, reliable principles for successfully communicating across cultures.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part I. The Global Perspective of Intercultural Communication
    1. Why Communicate across Cultures?
    2. What Constitutes a Culture?
    3. Obstacles of Perception
    4. Obstacles in Verbal Processes
    5. Obstacles in Nonverbal Processes
  • Part II. Two Worlds: The United States and Mexico
    1. The Mexico-United States Cultural Environment
    2. Some Mexico-United States Cultural Issues
    3. Day-to-Day Cultural Interaction
  • Part III. Conclusion
    1. Transcending Culture
  • Appendix: Author's Note
  • Glossary
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • About the Author

In our world of expanding technology and shrinking geography, people of different cultures have increasing frequency of contact and need for effective communication on a daily basis. Speaking a different language is an obvious obstacle to intercultural communication, but a greater and more difficult hurdle is to "speak" a different culture. Even though we may learn the words, the grammar, and the recognizable pronunciation of a language, we may still not know how to navigate around the greater obstacles to communication that are presented by cultural difference.

Communication specialists estimate that from two-thirds to three-fourths of our communication takes place nonverbally through behavior. All behavior is communication, and since we cannot not behave, we cannot not communicate. During all of the waking hours that we spend with other human beings we "speak" volumes through the behavior our culture has drilled into us.

Each of us is conditioned by our culture from birth. We learn when to speak up and when to keep quiet. We learn that some facial expressions meet with approval and others provoke a reprimand. We are taught which gestures are acceptable and which are not, and whether we can publicly unwrap a gift; we learn where to put our hands at a meal, whether or not we can make noise with our mouths when we eat, which table utensils to use or not use, and in what fashion we may use them. We learn how to address people in a manner approved by our culture, what tone of voice to employ, what posture is censored and what is praised, when and how to make eye contact and for how long, and countless other things that would be impossible to remember consciously and use all at the same time when interacting socially. This communicative behavior is learned so well that it becomes internalized at a subconscious level. We are primarily aware of deviations from our prescribed cultural norms, and we tend to negatively evaluate any such deviations.

Since we learn our cultural behavior in units, it is a useful artifice to compare cultural differences in units. To learn to communicate across cultures more quickly and more effectively, we can apply a framework of categories of potential obstacles (cultural units) to our own and to a target culture.

Part I of this book addresses the need for successful communication across cultures and defines what constitutes a culture. Next, an original taxonomy of potential intercultural communication obstacles is constructed from the literature of communication, anthropology, psychology, sociology, business, and current events, as well as from interviews with persons of multicultural backgrounds. The categories are explained, and many are illustrated with anecdotes.

Part II applies the framework of obstacles outlined in Part I to the differences in cultural units of the United States and Mexico. This application demonstrates how these cultural differences create misunderstanding and ineffectual communication in commonly occurring business and social situations.

Part III prescribes an effective approach to intercultural communication between any two cultures, using the framework of potential obstacles to efficiently obtain results. We can act consciously to transcend the rules with which our own culture grips us.

From Chapter 6

Mexico's indigenous peoples enormously impact the culture of Mexico today, and Mexican writer Dr. Agustín Basave Fernández del Valle points out that there is a chasm of difference between the native peoples of Mexico and those of the United States. Mexico had a civilization built on Maya-Quiche, Olmec, Toltec, Aztec, Mixtec, Zapotec, Totonac, Tarasca, and other Indian cultures that included such traits as complex sociopolitical institutions, cosmogony, and fine arts. The Olmecs, for example, had an elaborate dating system that included the concept of zero, unknown to their Roman contemporaries. The United States was populated by indigenous tribes that, for the most part, were nowhere near as advanced.

Many words from Náhuatl--the language of the Aztecs--have been assimilated into Mexican Spanish, and the world today gets words such as chocolate and tomato from Mexico's Aztecs. The visitor to Mexico may need to contend not only with Spanish as the national language, but with references to people, things, and places that have commonly occurring names such as Cuauhtémoc, Quetzalcoatl, and Tenochtitlán.

To Mexicans, a number of Amerindian figures are historically very important. The woman known as La Malinche was given as a concubine to Hernan Cortés, the conquistador of New Spain--as Mexico was known. La Malinche served as an interpreter and, loyal to Cortés, revealed an Aztec plot to kill the Spaniards. La Malinche also bore Cortés a son, and the role she symbolizes is significant to Mexican culture.

The United States claims to be the biggest ethnic melting pot of modern history, but Mexican author Basave points out that racial mixing with Amerindians was eschewed and that there still remains discrimination against Caucasian miscegenation with African Americans. The majority biological mixture in the United States is fundamentally European. While North Americans are proud of economic success and opportunity, in contrast, intellectual Octavio Paz stated that Mexicans take great pride in being a fundamentally mestizo country. Basave sees the United States as a country of white families that imported black Africans and let in Mexicans.

Poet and writer Octavio Paz states that although the language, religion, government, and culture of Mexico are occidental, "we are a people between two civilizations and two histories." Basave writes that the United States was started up like a new business, without two millennia of rich Indian culture, while Mexico's version of a human being is essentially Hispanic-Indian.

African Americans in the United States historically served only as cheap labor. While the Amerindians in Mexico filled a similar role, the Spanish nonetheless converted them to Christianity and educated them, and the native Amerindians became an essential part of the Mexican nation through biological and cultural intermingling with the colonizers. Amerindians are the backbone of Mexico. Basave's viewpoint is that Amerindians do not count in the United States. The colonists used the "sanitary rifle," and "the only good Indian was a dead Indian." It has been said with good reason that "Mexico es . . . uno de los países mas equilibradamente mestizos en el continente." (Mexico is . . . one of the most evenly mestizo countries of the continent).

The legacy of Mexico's mestizo culture is that there is very little racial prejudice in Mexico. A person who facilitates business liaisons between the United States and Mexico aptly points out that any discrimination in Mexico is more social than racial. From her perspective, it would appear that the United States sins twice in the area of discrimination. Not only is there racial prejudice, but there is clearly an element of social prejudice as well. In Mexico today, there are fewer barriers to social mobility for mestizos even than in other Latin American nations. In the 1990s, mestizos visibly occupied seats of power in government and in business.

Despite Mexico's general mestizo pride, like other New World countries with great racial mixing, the elite economic classes in Mexico tend by circumstance to be lighter skinned--and therefore lighter skin and hair can be prestigious. A few upper-class Mexicans are quick to state that they have "no Indian blood," and ads selling products from beer to cars often feature blondes.


A real estate investment professional currently residing in Austin, Texas, Tracy Novinger writes from extensive research and her personal experiences of living and working in cultures as diverse as Aruba and Tahiti. She was born in the Caribbean, studied in Brazilian schools, speaks several languages, has traveled extensively, and has a master's degree in communications.