If you have spent considerable time in a culture you didn’t grow up in, then you have likely found yourself in a situation where there was a misunderstanding, but it wasn’t due to the words that were spoken. What we refer to in English as reading between the lines indicates picking up on information that is not explicitly said, but rather, implied by context. The level to which we rely on our implicit understanding in a conversation is cultural, and this is an area of cultural communication where we often go wrong without even knowing it.

In her book The Culture Map, Erin Meyer describes a scale ranging from low-context, where one participant in a conversation makes no assumptions about what another participant knows, to high-context, where the information that is read between the lines can be much more important than what is explicitly said. The United States is the most low-context culture in the world. Latin American cultures, including Mexico, are considered high-context[1].

In the US, we value transparency and factual statements that are both explicit and specific. When it’s time to get down to business, we do not like to beat around the bush. In Mexico, such is not the case – as I have learned firsthand.

When I first started communicating with individuals from Mexico (friends, family of friends, businesspeople, etc.), I noticed that before [what I saw as] the actual conversation takes place, there is a ritual of politely saying “hello, good morning/afternoon/night,” and asking how the person is doing, sometimes followed by lengthier small talk. Being a low-context estadounidense, I tend to breeze past these pleasantries without realizing. Paulina, a friend of mine from Mexico, has confirmed that skipping this initial stage of the conversation can come off as brusque, unless both participants in the conversation know each other well.

Sometimes we have to alter the way we communicate with others in order to successfully get our message across. When I am consciously trying to have a positive interaction with someone from Mexico, I remind myself to greet them politely (with appropriate reference to the time of day) and to ask them how they are doing.

Usually, I am anxious to get to the real reason for the conversation. As a time-obsessed low-context communicator, the pleasantries feel like a waste of time. However, they are most certainly not. They serve as a small investment toward building a relationship of trust that is important for business, community, and culture.

Our patterns of cultural communication are ingrained from the moment we are born. Therefore, making an adjustment in order to effectively communicate with someone from a different culture can be difficult. Despite the difficulty, sharing your ideas with other people in a way they can easily understand is one of the most valuable things on Earth.

Whether you come from a low-context culture like the United States or a high-context culture like Mexico, make a conscious effort to accommodate your listener’s cultural communication style. Let them hear your ideas.

[1] …although not at the extreme end of the high-context cultures. Japan has the honor of being the most high-context culture in the world.