If we go by Christopher Jenk’s definition, “all the things that humans do or produce are cultural,” then intercultural communication must be viewed as a must in the workplace. However, since cultures aren’t replications of each other and are characterized by their differences, one must identify the cultural barriers that can affect effective communication in a workplace.
Communication is considered a functional prerequisite in a workplace and language is the system of communication that people rely on to exchange their information. Since verbal communication is the most used form of communication, it is essential for people to speak the same language in order to communicate effectively. However, it is a fact that despite English being a very commonly-used language, not all people and certainly not all cultures are taught or speak the English language. In fact, even when a common language is used, misunderstandings can still arise. A mispronunciation of a word or the lack of specificity concerning a word or phrase, for example, can lead to a huge misunderstanding. Although a common language is being used, when a person isn’t aware of the accurate meaning of a word or phrase, it may lead to a misinterpretation and may eventually damage the relationship between the two people as what can sound harmless to one may sound harmful to the other. Take the example of the different accents of the English language.
In addition, one cannot forget that a language can have different dialects. The Russian and Chinese languages, for example, have different dialects that are used by people living in different parts of the countries. Another example includes the German language; the separation of the West and East Germany that lasted for more than 30 years led to different dialects being used in the country, with the East having an influence of the Russian language while people living in the West talked with an influence of the English language.
If you still remember what a high and low context culture is, you’ll realize that language can also differ between these two types of cultures, eventually creating a cultural barrier to communication.
If you go by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s definition, “culture refers to a set of control mechanisms/ programs that can govern behavior. Once absorbed through the process of “enculturation”, these programs will be used by individuals to define the world, express feelings and make judgments.”
Based on this theory, it can be assumed that one will behave according to what he/she was taught by his/her culture. Thus, it is safe to say that cultural differences can cause behavioral differences, eventually leading to misunderstandings and miscommunications.
Each culture has its own guidelines for what it deems as “accepted behavior.”And, when you are born in a specific culture, it sets a specific norm that will dictate your behavior forever. However, since different cultures have different ideas about what’s polite and what’s rude or about what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate, clashes between the behaviors of people from different cultural backgrounds can create chaos in an organization.
Suppose a woman from an Arabic culture has a meeting with a man who comes from America and the latter ends the meeting by shaking the hands of the woman. In this case, the woman from the Arabic culture may have become slightly uncomfortable as in conservative societies like Arab and African countries, greeting the opposite gender by shaking hands or hugging is considered as ill-mannered. However, the man would not be uncomfortable at all as in Western countries, it is very common to shake hands or hug when meeting.
Other cultural differences, such as facial expressions, hand gestures, eye contacts or tone of voice, are things that can easily create barriers to effective communication in a workplace between people from different cultural backgrounds.