Cultures and communication: Barriers to intercultural communication

Factors affecting intercultural communication

Researchers list various factors affecting the face-to-face intercultural communication (ICC). Five of them may as well apply to the intercultural computer-mediated communication:

  • Perception. Broadly speaking the term “perception” means the ability of any individual to gather information, assess it and understand it. Perceptions vary from a culture to another;
  • Cultural values. They are grouped into a unique set of norms which characterises a culture. Basic values like good or bad, right or wrong are defined differently in world cultures. There might be universal values like peace and solidarity which are recognised by all world cultures. Differences in defining and judging values lead to cultural conflicts between people from different cultures;
  • Social organisation. Within a culture, the smallest unit of social organisation is the family, while the largest one is the society. Family plays a crucial role in influencing the attitudes, perceptions and values of individuals. Both the family and the educational system contribute to transferring a culture from one generation to another;
  • Language. When interacting, people from different cultures need to agree on a common language to establish a meaningful dialogue. If the common language is the native language of one of the parts, there might be communication problems, if that part is not aware that its counterpart makes efforts to use a second communication language. Language may be the main barrier to ICC;
  • Non-verbal cues. These are communication patterns in the form of gestures, facial expression, eye contact, movement, using time and space.
With a group of teachers working on an intercultural learning project, in Lisbon, 2006

With a group of teachers working on an intercultural learning project, in Lisbon, 2006

Barriers to intercultural communication

Interculturalists metaphorically call these barriers “stumbling blocks”. For example, when discussing key concepts of intercultural communication such as identity, nationality, intercultural verbal and nonverbal interactions, assimilation, inter-group relations, ethics and cultural diversity, Jandt (2003) explores the barriers to ICC coined previously by Barna, in 1997. They are:

  • Anxiety or stress

In a new cultural environment, people are exposed to new verbal, physical and psychological factors that may generate anxiety or tension. This situation leads frequently to a defensive reaction which affects communication considerably.

  • Assuming similarities instead of differences

As human beings we tend to think that, based on our common biological and social needs, we all are similar, despite the cultures we represent. The contact with a new culture and the lack of information about it may lead to assuming similarity instead of differences. Jandt also points out that the opposite situation could be a barrier as well, namely assuming difference instead of similarity, because people will not be aware of what cultures share in common. He advises (2003, p. 75): “The best thing to do when you encounter a new culture is to assume nothing and to ask what the customs are”. In other words, it would be naïve to assume that all human beings are the same.

  • Ethnocentrism

This involves a negative approach of judging attributes of other cultures by relating them to the own cultural norms. Each culture leans to see itself as superior or unique. There are no major or minor cultures, because “everything in a culture is consistent to that culture and makes sense if you understood that culture” (p. 76). Ethnocentrism is based on the fact that a group of people, representing a culture, tend to put their own culture in the middle and then relate other cultures according to their own values and norms that are familiar to them.

  • Stereotypes and prejudices

It is known that stereotypes contribute to minimising the fear when getting in contact with a new culture, helping feelings of security in a new cultural setting. But people tend to assess other persons based on oversimplified ideas and judgements generated by incomplete information about a culture and its people. Stereotyping means, therefore, applying these standardised patterns to a culture. Prejudices are negative attitudes towards a group of people or cultures.

  • Nonverbal misinterpretations

The perception of other cultures might be influenced by own cultural norms, sensorial capabilities (seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling) and body language interpretation. In other words, humans tend to decode such attributes through their own referential system. Space and time attributes, and how they are perceived within new cultural settings, are hard to observe.

  • Language differences

They may come not only from vocabulary and syntax differences, language registers, direct or indirect styles, but also from the lack of understanding the intentions and implications hidden within the meaning of the words. Language differences may arise from the discourse approach, the way the message is built, which varies from a culture to another.

(Adapted from Jandt, 2003, pp. 75-76)


Jandt F. E. (2003), An Introduction to Intercultural Communication: Identities in a Global Community, Sage Publications

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