Barriers to effective communication in a global environment

Written by david koenig
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Barriers to effective communication in a global environment
Non-verbal communication involves eyes, mouths, hands and other body parts. (dark eyes image by jimcox40 from

Modern life increasingly takes on international dimensions, with people in the U.S. communicating with people from every nation around the world, whether for business or pleasure, in person or online. As the "global village" grows smaller, the need for Americans to understand how the behaviour, language and attitudes of people from other countries and cultures becomes more vital. Failure to understand can result in misunderstandings, embarrassment, offence and, ultimately, failure to achieve the purpose of communication.


Language poses the most obvious obstacle to communication between people of different nationalities. Although English enjoys a privileged position as an internationally understood language, not everyone speaks English, and even those who do may speak other varieties of English. The type of English spoken in India differs from that of the U.K., for example. Sometimes words have different meanings, depending on the speaker. "Good for you" sounds encouraging in U.S. English, but to British ears, it usually has the tone of a sarcastic insult.

Body Language

Non-verbal communication can challenge people of different cultures. Not every culture uses the body in the same way. Americans tend to become suspicious if a person uses too little eye contact, for example, but Koreans use eye contact sparingly and may even look away from another person during a conversation, especially if they regard him as a social superior. An American shakes hands on greeting someone for the first time, but a Japanese person bows. Americans point at people and objects, but Arabs see this as rude.

Tone of Voice

In America, tone of voice can convey different emotions. A soft tone may suggest friendliness, but an increase in volume often suggests anger or hostility. People from non-white ethnic backgrounds may interpret volume differently, however. For Italians, getting loud indicates excitement and enthusiasm. An American may become offended by a raised voice, where someone from another country might interpret a quieter volume as a lack of enthusiasm or interest.


Every culture has one or more worldviews--theories about how the world works that influence the way people think. For example, an eastern culture such as Japan traditionally emphasises the value of groups (family, company, nation) more than individuals, where a western culture such as the U.S. focuses on individual rights and thinking. If an American tries to communicate an idea that relies on a western way of thinking about individuals and groups, a Japanese person may have difficulty seeing it the same way, and vice versa.


Not every culture expresses emotions in the same way. Americans generally view expressing emotion publicly as positive, but the Chinese discourage demonstrating strong emotions, especially negative ones. On the other hand, some cultures express emotion in ways that Americans see as excessive and interpret as signs of weakness or lack of control.

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