Six Barriers to Intercultural Communication

by Karen Farnen

Even within the same culture, communication isn't always easy. Spouses get divorced, friends fall out and workers change jobs -- often because of misunderstandings. Add cultural differences to the mix, and the sources of potential problems multiply. Whether you're a student, businessperson or traveler, knowing the barriers to intercultural communication is the first step to overcoming problems.

Language Differences

Language differences are an obvious barrier to intercultural communication. If you speak only English and a shopkeeper speaks only Japanese, you won't be able to communicate verbally. Even if you've studied the language or an interpreter is available, dialects, different accents and slang can cause problems. In addition, words don't necessarily translate from one language to another in a clean one-to-one correspondence. The same English word may have different meanings to people from different cultures.

Body Language

People sometimes take offense because of differences in body language across cultures. For example, a businessperson from Latin America might stand closer to a client than someone from North America would. This may make the North American feel crowded and want to back away. People from southern Europe typically use more eye contact than Britons and Americans, which may make the English-speakers uncomfortable. Because the French typically smile less than Americans, sometimes Americans think they aren't friendly.

Level of Context

Most English-speaking cultures are low-context, meaning they put a message into explicit words. In these cultures, saying "no" when you mean "no" is just considered straightforward or honest. High-context cultures, such as Japan, expect the listener to pick up more meaning from the general situation. For example, Asians sometimes say "yes" or "maybe" when they actually mean "no," according to the Diversity Council. Asians often consider an outright refusal blunt rather than honest.

Value of Time

Not all cultures think about time in the North American linear fashion. In the U.S., punctuality is important, but Latin and Middle Eastern cultures put a higher value on relationships. For example, you'd finish your conversation with someone even if it makes you late to a meeting. A culture's view of time also influences how it sees deadlines. For example, North Americans consider making a deadline crucial -- whether on the job or in college. People from Asia or South America are more likely to view deadlines as less important than results over the long haul.

Negative Stereotypes and Prejudices

Stereotypes and prejudices about people from other cultures can cause communication problems and give offense. Ethnocentrism, or a belief that your own culture is better than that of others, can lead to acting superior toward other groups and not treating them well. For example, a teacher in an American college may think that students from a certain culture lack strong English skills or are incapable of good work. This prejudice can lead the teacher to treat the students unfairly.

Feelings and Emotions

Individuals from the United Kingdom and Japan typically keep a tight control of their emotions, while Italians and French are more comfortable showing their feelings. Loud talking might embarrass an Englishman, for example, but an Italian may just be expressing excitement. Differences in culture and communication styles can even cause fear. As a result of this anxiety, people from different cultures may pull back and avoid trying to communicate at all, reports Kathy McKeiver, Coordinator of International Student Academic Advising at Northern Arizona University and chair of the Global Engagement Commission of the National Academic Advising Association.

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