The US car manufacturer, Chevrolet, introduced its classic sedan, the Nova, in South America. Had it done its research better, it may have discovered ahead of the launch that in Spanish ‘no va’ translates to ‘won’t go’. Not the ideal message for a car!

As the world shrinks, understanding the nuances of a local language can be the difference between success and failure. There are often barriers that make it difficult for people to communicate with each other. These can be cultural, organizational or language barriers. Problems caused by misunderstood language can be called a semantic barrier.

To define semantic barriers, let’s first look at the meaning of the word ‘semantics’. Semantics is the study of meaning and how it affects communication. When this kind of barrier arises, people aren’t able to understand one another. They don’t know what the other person is referring to or talking about.

Let’s take a closer look at semantic barriers of communication.


  1. What Is A Semantic Barrier?

  2. Why A Semantic Barrier Might Arise

  3. Types Of Semantic Barriers

  4. Examples Of Semantic Barriers

  5. How People Can Overcome A Semantic Barrier

What Is A Semantic Barrier?


A semantic barrier can be seen in different areas, such as interpersonal communication, social interaction and workplace issues.

Interpersonal communication is how co-workers or employees relate to one another in the workplace on a daily basis. This might also be referred to as professional communication. Workplace relationships take in a whole gamut of interactions. Water cooler conversations, discussions in meetings and Zoom calls are all instances of workplace communication. It’s often overlooked, but social interaction is also an important communication component in the workplace, and sometimes after hours too. It may involve discussions among co-workers about work and leisure-time activities. They might be held over dinner or drinks or at the office gym. As a result, all these are also settings where semantic barriers of communication can occur. 

Why A Semantic Barrier Might Arise


Cultural barriers come from the differences between cultures. The language and norms of a group or society affect the way people communicate or interact with each other. Culture and language are the backbone of verbal and written communication as well.

Cultural differences can be understood as an expression of one’s cultural heritage and a misunderstanding of these is a cultural barrier. For instance, there are some cultures that are more formal than others. The words used in professional communication are different in these cultures as a result. This can act as a semantic barrier if they’re dealing with someone who has a far more casual mode of expression. 

Types Of Semantic Barriers


There are two broad categories of a semantic barrier that are seen in the workplace. These are denotative barriers and connotative barriers.

These are two kinds of barriers that occur with communication. Denotative barriers are those that are based on the actual meaning of words, while connotative barriers are those based on the associations people have with words.

The word itself causes denotative barriers. These communication barriers can be overcome by translating the word into another language or using other words to minimize confusion. 

Connotative barriers arise when the meaning someone associates with a concept doesn’t match with what someone else understands. These barriers can be overcome by attempting to understand the meaning that someone associates with a word or by speaking in more detail.

Many barriers come from the same place: a difference of opinion between individuals based on different perspectives or experiences with an issue. Whether denotative or connotative, these barriers can be overcome by recognizing that an individual has a different perspective, acknowledging this and trying to understand it. 

Examples Of Semantic Barriers


There are language features and quirks that can cause miscommunication. Let’s take a look at common communication problems arising from these examples of semantic barriers:

1. Use Of Idioms

Idioms are phrases that have a figurative meaning that’s different from what it literally sounds like. For instance, if you ask someone, “Can you give me a hand?” or if you say, “I can’t get a hold of John,” the figurative meaning differs from the literal meaning. We use such phrases and figures of speech as a matter of course in our daily interactions and we don’t really even think before doing so. However, if the receiver of the message is unfamiliar with the expression, it’ll leave them confused.

2. Misunderstood Words

Words may be a barrier to communication because some words have different meanings or usage in different contexts. For instance, homonyms are words that sound the same but have different meanings and are spelled differently. When used in spoken language, however, this can easily cause confusion. For example, the words ‘write’ and ‘right’. They sound the same but mean different things. We can avoid confusion by choosing a different word, for example ‘correct’ instead of ‘right’.

3. Non-native Speakers

People often cross international borders on account of work nowadays. This leads to problems with things getting lost in translation, as we saw in the example of Chevrolet. Many people have a limited vocabulary when they’re speaking in a language that is not their native tongue. This can create a barrier to communication.

 4. Missed Or Misinterpreted Jokes

Sometimes jokes don’t come across as they should. This could happen because people misunderstand the meaning of certain words and phrases or if they’re just not funny. They might even be inappropriate or offensive. Jokes rarely travel well across cultures, as they depend on a shared understanding of language and usually contain specific cultural touch points. Using humor, while effective and enjoyable, is thus not always advisable in the workplace. 

5. Differences In Emoting

Some individuals don’t express their feelings willingly or openly. This might be a cultural issue or an individual one. Due to certain mental health or sensory conditions, emotions can also be misinterpreted.

 6. Tech Trouble

It used to be called a cross connection: when phone lines literally got tangled and you could hear someone else’s conversation. The modern version of this is the poor Internet connection causing frozen screens and broken audio, which can result in misinterpretation or misunderstanding.

 7. Lack Of Information

When we deliver partial or incomplete information, the meaning of the rest of the message might be misunderstood by the receiver.

 There are many examples of semantic barriers to communication that arise in the workplace. Luckily, they can also be overcome. 

How People Can Overcome A Semantic Barrier


Being clear, specific and straightforward are sometimes the easiest ways to overcome examples of semantic barriers. But this isn’t always possible. Here are some ways to achieve it:

1. Be Explicit

Hold the sarcasm and the coded messages. Express expectations clearly to eliminate the chance of misinterpretation.

2. Use Systems

Communication can be improved by establishing standards for meetings, documentation and training so that everyone knows what is going on. Putting things down in writing is often the best way to avoid uncertainty. Make it a part of project management and reporting structures.

3. Practice Active Listening

When it comes to deciphering meaning, context is king. The best way to establish context is to listen carefully. This involves acknowledging the fact that the other person is talking or expressing how they’re feeling. This will help to reduce communication barriers. Those who are good at listening will note and retain information for recall, discard irrelevant information quickly and in doing so will ensure that they understand what was said. It’s a habit worth cultivating.

4. Establish Shared Understanding

Just like countries and regions have a culture, so too do different organizations. They might use specific words, jargon and acronyms. If an employee is new to the system, or the jargon is in a language they aren’t comfortable with, they may miss the meaning. Establish a shared understanding of this kind of terminology for ease of communication.

Organizations can also establish a code of ethics so that employees know what’s expected of them when it comes to communication. Organizational values will never replace our cultural experience, but they can play a role in creating a more cohesive workforce.

5. Use Appropriate Body Language

Facial expressions and gestures can help to overcome semantic barriers of communication because they help to clarify meaning. However, failure to recognize this leads to more misunderstandings if inappropriate body language is used. This is also something that differs from place to place, so some sensitivity is needed.

 6. Cross-cultural Awareness

There’s no better antidote to semantic and cultural barriers than curiosity about the world. Employees dealing with people across geographies should be aware of the different cultures at play. It’ll help them understand and deal with different situations.

 7. When In Doubt, Ask

Assumptions are the enemy of clarity. Don’t assume meaning. If ever in doubt, ask clarifying questions.


Aside from these tips, organizations should evaluate communication regularly. With rigor and mindfulness, semantic barriers in the workplace can be minimized.


Understanding the meaning of semantic barriers is the first step on the road to better communication. With Harappa’s Speaking Effectively course, these barriers can be effectively overcome. Public speaking is one of the most important skills to master in professional life. Whether it’s delivering a keynote address or making a presentation to the team, the ability to speak clearly and persuasively is transformative. Learn frameworks, tips and techniques to make the most of every speaking engagement with Harappa.

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