Cross-Cultural Stumbling Blocks in Communication

Communication is an important part of our day to day lives. We have to communicate in order to pass our messages to other people. It is true to say that communication is not always easy. Even for people within the same culture communication can be quite complicated. We live in a culturally diverse world where we encounter individuals from different races, religions and nationalities. The world today is becoming a small global village and meeting people who are of different cultures is not a new thing. Understanding how people from different cultures communicate has become one of the most aspects of communication. There are certain barriers that will prevent communication between people from different cultures. This paper will focus on the significant stumbling blocks that prevent people from different cultures to communicate and understand one another. The paper will focus on three major stumbling blocks including language, stereotypes and non-verbal signs and symbols. The paper will also focus on the impacts of these barriers and the effects it has to people when they communicate.

In her 1976 article La Raye Barna, a researcher into the problems of intercultural communication, entitled “Intercultural Communication Stumbling Blocks” she notes a number of stumbling blocks that prevent people from communicating. Among the ones she names include language, stereotypes, non-verbal signs and symbols, preconceptions and anxiety among others. These blocks are quite significant when it comes to communication because people from different cultures have different languages. People from different cultures may have symbols that means something different from what it means in another culture. For example in America a nod might mean yes while in other cultures a nod might mean something else.

The first stumbling block that I will discuss in this paper is the most prevalent one. No one person can communicate without language. Language can be said to be the backbone of communication. People from different cultures have different languages. It therefore becomes quite difficult for people to communicate. On the other hand the same word could mean different things in different cultures. Even when one is using the same language, the same word could mean totally different things in different cultures. A very good example is the word ‘pants’. This word is an English word that means different things in different cultures. In the United States the word ‘pants’ means an outwear from the waist to the ankles while in the United Kingdom the same word means an innerwear. This means that people from these two cultures cannot understand one another when it comes to communicating.

The second stumbling block is the use of non-verbal signs and symbols. Non-verbal signs is the second way in which people communicate. It might be deemed not to be so important but in the real sense it is quite important. If people do not have a common language the use of gestures is the next important way in which they communicate. People all around the world use signs and symbols to communicate. Examples of the most common signs include nodding, waving and facial expressions among others. People from different cultures interpret different gestures differently. People in America smile at each other as a sign of politeness and being friendly. In other countries like Russia however, smiling at strangers is deemed to be a strange gesture and impolite at times.  In the Asian Cultures on the other hand a smile is not a symbol of joy and friendliness but can be used to express pain and in some cases embarrassments. Head movements can be used in some cultures to mean yes but in other cultures especially in the Middle East it is used to mean no. the use of these signs and symbols can therefore be quite confusing for people especially those who do not understand one another.

Another key barrier to proper communication is stereotypes. People have been stereotyped according to where they come from. According to Barna (1976) stereotypes prevent people from using objectivity when it comes to learning about a person. People will only see what they want to or what they have been taught to see. In today’s world Muslims are all seen as terrorists. This is because of the extremists groups that have turned into terrorism activities. Many of the Muslims are not even terrorists but anytime they are spotted anywhere people become aware of their presence. This is a stereotype that make people not want to communicate with Muslims because they are believed to be evil. Late last year I was boarding a train to go see my grandparents when a Muslim came aboard. Few minutes later people were busy alighting the busy others saying that they cannot travel the same train with a terrorist. Stereotypes are becoming quite common in our society and are increasingly becoming barriers to communication.

Communication is key in forming any relationship. Without communication relationships cannot be formed and people cannot interact with each other which means there will be no relationships formed whatsoever. Stumbling blocks in cross-cultural communications cannot be avoided easily. It takes time and patience to learn about the different cultures and their way of communication in order to fit in the same category. Barna (1976) notes that it is difficult to actually get rid of the stumbling blocks that are available and it becomes easier for people to come up with ways to get through them. Language and non-verbal signs and symbols are one of the major stumbling blocks that have been discussed in this paper. Language is a key component in communication and when two parties find it difficult to communicate then forming a relationship becomes difficult. People try their best to get past the stumbling blocks in the best way possible including learning the second language.





LaRay Barna “Intercultural Communication Stumbling Blocks,” (1976)

Robert Levine and Ellen Wolff “Social Time: the Heartbeat of a Culture,” (1995)

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