Six barriers to intercultural communication

multicultural family image by Gina Smith from

Communicating across cultures carries myriad challenges, and scholars have studied the process for decades.

Intercultural communications can present complex obstacles that cover the full communication spectrum, but six important oral and nonverbal factors can make a significant difference when communicating with individuals from another culture.


Americans tend to have an ethnocentric perspective on language that, according to Dr. Sue Easton of the Rollins College Communication Department, leads them to view English as a universal language. Because many cultures around the globe speak English, Americans may forget that some businesses conduct transactions in other languages or that some individuals don't understand English. According to Dr. Easton, a presumption that other cultures spoke English and observed common American practices led to a failure of American foreign ventures in the mid-20th century, though extensive education on intercultural communication has helped reduce this assumption.

Jargon and Slang

Each culture, even regional cultures within a larger culture, develops unique sets of jargon and slang. Though members of that culture may find these words commonplace and use them with abandon, newcomers to the culture may misunderstand the meanings behind them or fail to understand them altogether. In addition, some slang words appropriate for use in one culture may carry strong connotations in another, as explained in the publication "Diversity in the Workplace," so intercultural communicators should limit use of jargon and slang words or phrases.

Personal Space

Different cultures can take significantly different approaches to personal space, and a lack of cultural understanding can make some individuals uncomfortable and insult others. While Western culture prefers an arm's length of physical personal space while communicating, according to a 2006 article in the "Journal of Applied Social Psychology," people from some Latin and Middle Eastern cultures stand considerably closer together when speaking. To a Westerner, this personal space violation can lead to discomfort, and the communicator may view a resulting step away as a sign of distrust.


Human nature, according to an intercultural communication article on the practical advice website, can lead one to make assumptions about other people; some cultures use stereotypical images to reaffirm these assumptions. Though some stereotypes may stem from factual observations, many build on personal beliefs and fears that individuals may hold. To communicate effectively across cultural boundaries, communicators must put stereotypes and assumptions aside.

Eye Contact

In the United States, communicators tend to maintain direct eye contact with others during one-on-one communication, and make sporadic eye contact with an audience when communicating with large groups. Though direct eye contact may symbolise respect in Western cultures, according to the communications book "Intercultural Communication: A Reader," other cultures view it differently. Native American and some Eastern cultures, for example, consider direct eye contact disrespectful, and a failure to understand these cultural norms regarding eye contact can create significant intercultural communication obstacles.


Different cultures maintain markedly different approaches to time, and communicators who don't understand a culture's time orientation may experience difficulty building relationships in that culture. Though Americans view time as a commodity, other cultures take a much more lax approach to the subject; some Latin cultures, for example, expect parties to be as much as 30 minutes late when conducting business. Communicators from a culture that views time as a commodity must refrain from becoming upset when a party from another culture arrives late, as the late communicator may view such frustration as insensitive, demanding and offensive.