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Cross Cultural Communication Barriers Essay

LaRay Barna (1982) has elaborated on the distinction between observations and interpretation in cross cultural communication. Five areas of practice constitute potential barriers. In order to overcome these barriers, postpone interpretation until you know enough about the other culture. In other words observed behavior but try not to attach attribution to it.

First, there’s the obvious barrier of language differences. Language is much more than learning new vocabulary and grammar. It includes cultural competence: knowing what to say and how, when, where, and why to say it. Knowing a little of the foreign language may only allow you to make a “fluent fool” of yourself. Also, within the same language the same word may have a different meaning in different settings. Ways to decrease the language barrier are [1] learn the language, [2] find someone who can speak the language as an interpreter, and [3] ask for clarification if you are not sure what someone says.

Second, there is the area of nonverbal communication such as gestures, posture and other ways we show what we feel and think without speaking. Our culture has taught us to communicate through unspoken messages that are so automatic that we rarely even think about them. An interviewer might put his or her own cultural interpretation on your hand gesture, facial expression, posture, clothing, physical closeness or distance, eye contact, or personal appearance, and that attribution may not be what you intended to at all. Ways to cross the nonverbal communication area are [1] do not assume you understand any nonverbal signals or behavior unless you are familiar with the culture, [2] don’t take a stranger’s nonverbal behavior personally, even if it is insulting in your culture, and [3] develop an awareness of your own and nonverbal communication patterns that might be insulting in certain cultures.

Third, stereotypes are a major barrier to communicating across cultures. We try to fit people into patterns based on a previous experience. We see pretty much what we want or expect to see and reject the possible interpretations that don’t fit with what we expect. If we expect people from country X to be unfriendly to foreigners, we will probably interpret their behavior in that way. Steps to overcome this barrier resemble the familiar triad, awareness-knowledge-skills, (that we discussed earlier in the chapter): [1] make every effort to increase awareness of your own preconceptions and stereotypes of cultures you encounter, [2] learn about the other culture, and [3] reinterpret their behavior from their cultural perspective, adapting your own stereotypes to fit your new experiences.

A fourth barrier is the tendency to evaluate behavior from the other culture as good or bad, to make a judgment based on our own cultural bias. Evaluation has been called a third stage of how we attribute meaning. The first two, observation and interpretation, lead naturally to it. Different attitudes about, for instance, food and drink can cause misunderstanding as we evaluate them. Ways to decrease the tendency to evaluate our [1] maintain appropriate distance, [2] recognize that you cannot change the culture (or yourself) overnight, [3] do not judge someone from another culture by your own cultural values until you have first come to know them and their cultural values.

The fifth barrier is the high level of stress that typically accompanies intercultural interactions. Like every other unfamiliar experience, intercultural contact is likely to involve some stress. Ways you can decrease stress are to [1] accept the ambiguity of cross cultural situations in which you are not sure what others expect of you or what you can expect of them, [2] work to reduce other intercultural barriers, and [3] be forgiving of others and yourself, giving both them and yourself the benefit of the doubt.

In intercultural encounters, then, there are several filters that can prevent us from accurately understanding what others are trying to communicate, and that can prevent others from accurately understanding what we are trying to communicate: our tendency to interpret and evaluate behavior before we understand it, and our willingness to stereotype groups of people, which prevents us from interpreting behavior accurately. When we are looking and listening, the remedy is to try and increase the range of our perception, to observe and suspend our interpretation [what we think] and evaluation [what we feel], and to ask for clarification when in doubt. When speaking, we should take care to clarify the intention behind our words and check to see if the message has come across correctly. In all cases, we should be prepared for surprises.


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