What Are Cultural Barriers to Communication in the Workplace? - Definition & Examples

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Instructor: Donna Swarthout
A thriving global marketplace requires effective communication across cultures. Learn about the cultural barriers to communication in the workplace and take a quiz to test your knowledge.

Definition of Cultural Barriers to Communication

Have you ever had trouble communicating with someone from another culture? Perhaps you struggled to understand someone's speech or interpret their behavior. Whether in a university or the workplace, it is common to face barriers or challenges to effective cross-cultural communication. The global marketplace creates many opportunities for business development, but ineffective cross-cultural communication can harm employees, customers, and other stakeholders. It is important to understand the barriers to cross-cultural communication and know how to overcome them. Let's take a look at some of the cultural barriers to communication in the workplace.

Examples of Cultural Barriers to Communication

Language - misunderstandings are common among people who speak the same language, so it's not surprising that people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds face communication barriers. Anything from the mispronunciation of a word to a lack of specificity can lead to misunderstandings. For example, if a sales director in New York asks a contractor in Brazil to do something soon, the two parties may have a different interpretation of the word 'soon.' Language is a reflection of culture, and different cultures have very different ways of assigning meanings to words.

Behavior - cultural differences in body language and other behaviors can also cause miscommunications. For example, in the U.S., it is important to make eye contact with someone who is speaking to you or they may think you are distracted or uninterested. However, in many Asian countries, eye contact can be a sign of disrespect or a challenge to authority. There are many other cultural differences in body language that can create barriers to effective communication. Those include differences in facial expressions, the use of nodding to indicate agreement or understanding, and the amount of space to give someone with whom you are having a conversation.

Stereotypes are assumptions people make about the characteristics of members of a cultural or social group. Many stereotypes are negative or even hostile and are a serious barrier to workplace communication. If you make a joke about expecting your Latin American colleague to arrive late for a meeting, you may damage your professional relationship. While some cultures may share a general set of characteristics, it is never okay to assume that individual members of a group have those same characteristics.

Ethnocentrism is the tendency to judge other groups according to the standards and values of one's own group. Ethnocentric views not only act as a communication barrier but can hinder employee morale and productivity. If you come from a culture where it is important to make small talk prior to conducting business, you may consider someone who gets right to the point to be rude. However, from another cultural perspective, it is both acceptable and efficient to get right down to business.

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