Digital marketer Tanu was on her way from India to a new job in Singapore when the pandemic shut down travel between the two countries. The organization didn’t waste any time onboarding her virtually. When she joined work, she tried her best to get to know her new team. But managing 20 people she’d never met who were scattered all over the world was a challenge.
Tanu was dealing with a cultural barrier. A cultural barrier is an issue arising from a misunderstanding of meaning, caused by cultural differences between sender and receiver. It can cause outright conflict, but more often, it creates stress in the workplace.
As the world becomes smaller and the mobility of employees is on the rise, culture shock or cultural barrier is a problem more of us are facing every day. Managers already know that communication is the key to any great business. But if the team doesn’t all speak the same language—literally—it will face one of the most common examples of cultural barrier. Cross-cultural communication barriers are among the most important hurdles to overcome in a global marketplace.
Let’s take a closer look at the meaning of cultural barriers.
The Definition Of A Cultural Barrier
Going from one country, city or town to another can be difficult. When there’s work to be done when we get there, it’s even harder.
Some people assume all cultures are more similar than they actually are. Or even if they’re aware of the differences, dealing with them sensitively is difficult for them. While we all have a lot in common, there is also much that separates us. Particularly in the workplace. And communication is often the first problem to arise as a result.
While handling examples of cultural barriers to communication, it’s important to determine if the issue is a socio-cultural one or a cross-cultural one.
A socio-cultural barrier occurs at the level of the group or social group. Cross-cultural communication barriers occur at the level of the individual. Understanding which type is present will reveal what specific barriers to communication to solve. For example, if a manager can communicate with a team of Chinese speakers because he can speak Mandarin, but cannot communicate with a French speaker because he cannot speak French, then it’s easy to recognize the issue.
For instance, a manager may not understand how to process a request from a colleague if he doesn’t know how his colleague communicates.
With a socio-cultural barrier, the message may be understood, but a barrier exists in the receiving party’s ability to respond. It can even occur between two people who belong to the same culture. It can be caused by confusion or discomfort about how to express oneself respectfully. There are cultures, for instance, where hierarchy plays an important part in society, in which a junior will hesitate before contradicting a senior. That’s a socio-cultural barrier.
The meaning of cultural barriers is easy to grasp. We’ve all had trouble understanding the culture of another person at some point in our lives. While trying to understand the meaning of a message, the receiver interprets it from his or her own cultural perspective. While the receiver may grasp the individual words that make up a message, they may not comprehend its overall meaning. This causes confusion and anxiety because receivers can’t act appropriately. People who are unaware of the cultural barrier may also communicate inappropriately, using unacceptable verbal and non-verbal cues, leading to even greater misunderstanding.
The good news is that it’s possible to overcome a cultural barrier in the workplace.
How To Work Across Cultures
When up against a cultural barrier, individuals must make the effort required to communicate effectively. But it’s the organization that must take the lead. How can managers prepare to work with people from a different culture? Here are some steps to follow for successful and positive communication:
1. Introspect On Your Own Culture
Solutions start with the self. Individuals must try to understand their own culture and how it’s conditioned them. They can translate that into an understanding of where cultural differences might arise with others.
2. Learn About Others
All employees across teams should attempt to understand the culture of the other person with whom they’re trying to communicate. This might mean that the marketing team has to do a deep dive to understand the culture in a new country the organization is entering. Or that global teams need to get to know their colleagues’ cultures. Over time, the efforts will show results as a better understanding develops of how people behave, work and care for their families, friends and communities. And it’s fun!
3. Get Personal
Get to know the person and team. To understand how someone thinks, there is no substitute for the personal. This will allow colleagues to improve communication much faster than any other effort. Encourage managers to spend more time getting to know their employees personally. Managers will also need training on how to adjust their communications for those who have a different cultural background. Developing attentive listening skills and body language that’ll make those from all cultures feel comfortable is a good practice.
To overcome cultural barriers, employees across the board need to put in the work. They must take the time to understand other cultures and gain a thorough understanding of the barriers that may arise from an individual’s background.
How Cultural Barriers Can Hold Back An Organization
It isn’t just that cross-cultural communication barriers create interpersonal problems. A socio-cultural barrier can also have a deep impact on organizations. Here’s a few examples:
- An inability to get the job done and meet deadlines. When communication breaks down, this is the worst-case scenario.
- A low employee morale that leads to high turnover and poor performance.
- Constant misunderstandings because of cultural differences can cause a stressful and unpleasant workplace. At its worst, it can cause legal issues.
- An inability to trust the boss, which could cause a lack of motivation or care towards the organization’s success.
To overcome the socio-cultural barrier, organizations should look at examples of cultural barriers to communication that have been faced by others. Organizations large and small have been able to succeed with teams spread across the world and there’s no reason issues can’t be addressed head on.
How To Identify A Cultural Barrier
It isn’t uncommon for problems to arise from cultural differences. But how to diagnose the problem? These are the signs there are cross-cultural communication barriers in the workplace:
- The use of unprofessional language. This might include incorrect use of phrases and slang words in another language
- Resistance arising from the preference of some for a more direct communication style, which can be interpreted as angry or disrespectful
- A failure to get the point across. Misunderstood messages can result from language problems. While this is understandable, it must be addressed
- Rude or snide behavior, such as mocking a person for not understanding the conversation or talking over them during meetings or conversations
- A lack of interest in getting to know others from other cultures. This can lead to animosity because of the missed opportunities for growth within an organization
The cultural barrier can be overcome just like any other by understanding them, but it takes a lot of time and effort. However, understanding the differences in behavior, values and communication styles will help managers become more effective and successful cross-cultural communicators.
The pandemic has altered how organizations function across borders. On one hand, more and more people are working from wherever they are. On the other, it has made in-person meetings harder, which can worsen cultural conflict. Here’s how remote working can make cultural barriers worse:
- There is no opportunity for people to observe one another and reflect upon what they see, and therefore to learn from one another’s behavior
- The inability of remote workers to be aware of their behavior because they lack feedback from others
- Emails and texts can be misinterpreted and misconstrued. When it’s not possible to cross the office for a clarification, this can cause friction
To overcome cross-cultural barriers, managers need to learn about the culture and language of others. They can also study examples of cultural barrier. This way, they’ll understand how their words are interpreted and be able to better communicate. It’s important that managers develop and show trust through their interactions with all employees, so that they feel comfortable in expressing their feelings and thoughts regarding the culture barrier affecting them.
Now more than ever, it’s important for organizations to work toward building cohesive international teams. Cross-cultural barriers to communication can be overcome by leaders who put in the work. Harappa’s Building Presence course will help them do just that. It’ll teach positive body language, how to build trust and develop an individual voice that gives everyone space to shine. With the course’s live support and self-paced learning, it’s easy to develop as a professional. Empower your teams with the Harappa advantage.
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