Barriers to Intercultural Communication

Julie Shenkman
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Today's competitive global economy results in frequent cross-border movements of staff that results in a growing diversity at the workplace. As the inevitable happens between cultures, breakdowns in communication are a common occurrence. That is certainly costly to the multinational enterprise in terms of workplace relations, returns and revenues, and customer relationship. Not to mention, the firm's competitive advantage.

As such, three main obstacles to intercultural communication are identified and accordingly expounded further below. It is noteworthy to the International Assignee the consequences if due care is not exercised when interacting with non-native English speakers.

1. Language
* Slang, Jargon
* Dialects, Pidgin
* Accents

The transfer of International Assignees across geographical borders perpetuates the use of the English language. That has never been as pervasive or as widely, although variations of the language and degree of fluency differ from country to country, individual to individual.

As it is, usage of slang and jargon - examples: sport, technical - is to be avoided unless the Assignee is very sure the local audience understands them well. Also, the presence of globally known brands, products and services does not mean that the locals possess the same level of mindset.

It is therefore imperative that the Assignee be sensitive of both connotations and implications that may arise as a result of local usage; further influenced by the local languages where English is a second or third, or foreign language.

2. Modern Technology
* E-mail
* SMS Text Messaging
* Video Conferencing / Teleconferencing

The advent of modern technology, especially the Internet, has made access easier and cheaper to people worldwide such that it helped speed up globalisation. Similarly, the pervasive use of technological tools like Short Message Service [SMS] and e-mail amongst locals does not mean that cultural mishaps will not occur.

The difficulty that comes with the aforesaid tools is gauging the recipients' expressions. Their responses could be not what the Assignee expects or least anticipates. On the other hand, the ease of communicating electronically removes formality and business etiquette that can not only be misconstrued but also leads to a breakdown in communication.

Hence, it is pertinent on the Assignee's part to convey himself as clearly and plainly as possible to avoid any misunderstandings that may arise.

3. Behaviourial and Mindset
* Anxiety
* Discomfort
* Fear of the "Unknown"
* Prejudice and Stereotyping
* Perceived Cultural Superiority or Ethnocentrism
* Discrimination = Racial, Sexual, Educational

Coming from a culture that upholds individualism, privacy and independence; the Assignee will certainly experience shock, resistance, and to a lesser degree, disgust towards the host culture that is perceived as inferior. Which as a result, he may withdraw himself seeking similar individuals; or refusal to adapt accordingly to his environment.

The Assignee may also display anxiety and discomfort if he has not come across - or having little or rare opportunities to socialise with - people of other cultures before. He will lose sight on effectively communicating his ideas as his fear[s] of not being understood - amongst others - overwhelms him.

Thus, it is to both the organisation's long-term interest and the Assignee's well-being that he has the ability to manage the conflicts well enough. Otherwise it is detrimental to his work performance which can affect the entire department's morale as a whole.

One Last Word...

It is convenient to dismiss Cultural Differences as the major or sole reason for a breakdown in communication - which does not serve the International Assignee well in the long run. Instead, he could be more proactive by confronting the issues that prevented him from working closely with his team.

By addressing the problem and then taking practical steps to remedy any unintentional misunderstanding caused; such actions will not only make him more motivated at work but his stay more pleasant too.

Just remember: Treat anyone regardless of ethnic, racial or cultural background the same way you would want to be treated.

About the Author

Multi-ethnic and polyglot Ange Teo is the Founder-Managing Director of e2m expat etiquette mentoring, a Singapore-based Cross-Cultural Communications Solutions Provider.

Having worked with some of the world’s leading Multinational Companies and Singapore-based Small Medium Enterprises for over 20 years; Ange Teo specialises in the areas of Information Technology, Secretarial/Administration, and Human Resources specifically Executive Search / Headhunting.

For more information about e2m Cultural Intelligence [CQ]-focused Communications Solutions, please visit

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