Intercultural Communication: understanding and engaging-the Mayan experience


Shanoy Coombs Intercultural Communication
Shanoy Coombs interviews members of a Mayan Community in Southern Belize

During a recent supervisory mission to Belize, our team of Community Engagement, Monitoring and Evaluation and Project Management specialists assesed a project around Climate resilience in  Mayan communities in the southern region. The occasion provided the opportunity to experience a time hop and experience first hand the benefits and significance of Intercultural Communication.

Intercultural communication by definition is the way that different groups or cultures communicate. It also refers to the different contexts that influence this communication and indeed the barriers.

In so many ways, Intercultural communication takes your general definition of communication and zooms in on the cultural elements.

Here’s a fact. Outside of language differences being a major roadblock in communication, different variations, even within the same community is something worth considering and this was evidenced during my recent mission.

What was discovered from the initial community assessment and engagement session was the need for constant and multiple interpreters throughout the process. After all, for such a  culturally diverse space, there could often be heard fluent Spanish, hints of English and then the native Q’eqchi’  and Mopan.  Further afield Belize also boasts countless languages including Belizean Creole, German, Garifuna and  Plautdietsch  which is spoken mainly by the Mennonite population. Imagine then, the conundrum if one were to attempt to implement a strategy for the “general public”, which I’ve already debunked in a prior post. 

Shanoy Coombs Intercultural Communication
Shanoy Coombs and team engages village members during a community engagement session in Southern Belize

Even with its diversity, who would have thought that a “known term” such as climate change would prove troublesome. On the ground, we had to face this reality as in the native language, there were no equivalent to properly convey this term. Instead what emerged was a series of explanations, whereby members of the villages were able to interact and then share their understanding of what the term meant to them. 

It was interesting to witness first hand all the language constructs that needed to be considered when creating what would otherwise be routine communication materials for the intended population.


Cultural Hierarchy

Of key significance as well was the importance of cultural norms and how they affected our intercultural communication cycles.  I’ve long known the importance of building trust with communities in the development communication framework but had quite the learning experience with the gatekeepers in Southern Belize. An important fact is the cultural hierarchies and how they influence what some may call a communication tree. One cannot and should never attempt for example to implement any initiative on behalf of a community without first building rapport, trust and even camaraderie with its leaders. In Belize, this was no different and was in fact a necessity.

Long known for its traditional system of governance which differs greatly from the urban areas of Belize, the Mayans of the south operate under this traditional system, recognized under both Maya cultural authority and the State of Belize and governed by both the Maya cultural tradition and the Constitution of Belize.

For context, this excerpt from the Cultural Survival network sheds a bit more light.

For over a century now, the Alcaldes work together with the Maya villages as guardians of Maya values and norms. Entrusted by their communities, the Alcaldes are the authorities of the Alcaldes System established to maintain the order of the villages using traditional governance.

Having recognized this, priority was given to first nurturing a relationship with the Alcaldes and the village councils before any attempt could be made to engage members of the villages. The nurturing of this relationship extended well beyond sharing our WHY and HOW the project would have been beneficial for the grouping to truly embracing and celebrating the culture. It was commonplace then to be invited in at every household for the special occassion meal of Caldo and corn tortillas. Today I’ll joke that I’ve never had as much of the same meal in any one go, but for me it was significant as with every household entered, every meal enjoyed, our team was one step closer to understanding and gaining the trust and approval of our Mayan audience.

This trust was all too integral as it eventually found us the approval we needed to proceed further with communicating directly with members of the villages. Even then, content had to be vetted and clearly explained in every go. The experience was a reminder about the importance of cultural norms and how to engage in such a way that there are no abrupt deviations from what holds.

Right Strategy, wrong fit


Shanoy Coombs Belize

Another solid intercultural learning experience was linked to communication strategy mapping. As the Knowledge Management and Communication specialist on the ground. I quizzed both the community engagement officers (COs) and village members about how they communicated project related matters with each other. With a massive distance between villages, bumpy roads and long hours via bike for the CO’s, I recommended strategies such as a town crier/Megaphone to complement the existing means of communication. While acknowledging the possible benefits of this, the Co’s pointed out a key piece of data that I had not yet been exposed to. “Several of the community members are older. They prefer to have us here speaking to them directly, so that they can ask the questions repeatedly until they understand”. So it was that despite being able to only cover 2 households in one day, we agreed that culturally, word of mouth, though not the most efficient use of time was the most effective method based on the audience we served.


With the reminders about language differences, cultural sensitivities and the right strategy,  In  many ways, my Southern Belize experience reaffirmed much of what I already knew about communication as an interactive and engaging process. Yet it also found so many ways to serve as a reminder that on the intercultural communication path, there is value in patience, power in building trust and rewards in truly listening to be able to meet the needs of those we serve.


Are you in the intercultural communication space? What has been one of your most memorable intercultural exchanges? let’s stay in touch join my mailing list

Shanoy Coombs is a Development Communication Consultant in the Latin America and Caribbean region.  Are you Social? Connect with Shanoy  on twitter via @InspiraShan and learn more about her work via the projects page.




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