Breaking Down Barriers

to Cross-Cultural Communication

a Nurturing Potential report


There are several strategies for removing hindrances to effective communication between cultures, particularly in education, business and social relationships.  Primary amongst these are the avoidance of the use of language that appears to stereotype members of a minority culture, and the recognition that different ethnic group follow differing cultural patterns during verbal interaction.

Recognition of these factors may be reflected in the following range of cross-cultural communication avoidance tactics:

1.  The suggestion that members of an ethnic group are all the same.  [Example: "Why is she always late?  It's so typical of . . . " (ethnic group).]

2.  The use of qualifiers that reinforce ethnic stereotypes.  [Example: "He's an honest . . ." (ethnic group)  The implication being that members of that group are typically dishonest.]

3.  The avoidance of reference to racial identification whenever possible. [Example: "He's a brilliant speaker," is preferable to "He's a brilliant (ethnic group) speaker".]

4.  The use of adjectives that might reinforce racial bias.  [Example: "It turned out to be a really black day" might advisedly be changed to "It turned out to be a really miserable day."

Other factors in communication that need to be considered if barriers to effective communication are to be removed are:

1.  The recognition that maintaining eye contact during a conversation is a violation in some cultures and a requirement in others.

2.  Maintaining a respectful distance from a speaker is demanded by some cultures, while others may stand close enough to touch each other.

3.  Ethnic humour and stories based on ethnic differences need to be avoided as they will be found offensive by many cultures.

4.  Interrupting a conversation is regarded as acceptable, even desirable, by some cultures, while others may be offended by it.  Similarly there are codes of conduct for loudness of speech, speed of delivery, and time to respond, which vary from culture to culture.

In improving relationships across cultural lines, it can be useful to identify possible sources of miscommunication or socially offensive behaviour before embarking on an interaction, be it in an educational environment, or that of business, or in a social context.  Establishing specific codes of conduct or agreeing on certain rules to govern the relationship, may seem a stilted way of beginning such an interaction, but could avoid creating a misunderstanding or giving offence.  On the other hand, it is as well to be aware that broaching the subject in advance might itself be embarrassing, if not offensive, to one of the participants.