Barriers to effective intercultural communication

This article is part of a series from Good Practice, offered to ICAS members as part of the ICAS mentoring programme.

Language differences exist in verbal, written and non-verbal communication, and they can be significant barriers to successful intercultural communication. This article looks at these language differences and some of the methods that can be used to ensure effective intercultural communication.

Verbal communication

Different spoken languages are obvious barriers to effective communication in international business. However, becoming fluent in a new language can take many months, even years, of intensive study and most organisations do not have the time or resources to enable employees to improve their language skills. Problems can arise when a person must rely on their knowledge of another language in order to operate in another country or work with a person from another country. If their language skills are slightly rusty or they are not as fluent as they should be, serious problems in understanding can emerge.

A way of getting around these language difficulties is to employ the services of an interpreter – this is often the only practical solution in many international business situations. But this option is not without its problems: when messages are relayed through several people, there are more opportunities for miscommunication. This may happen when the interpreter is familiar with the languages being used, but is not so knowledgeable about the business terms and jargon used for that particular business activity.

Problems may arise through incorrect interpretations by translators and through semantics difficulties, so learning the syntax and structure of a language is not enough. For example, a 'hot item' will not burn a finger that touches it; it is merely an item that is selling very well, or something that has been stolen – it depends on the context. A 'non-stop' flight will, of course, stop eventually – at its intended destination. Similarly, people do not literally 'catch' a bus – something of a physical impossibility! If an international business person is ignorant of the connotations, slang, idioms and dialects of a given language, problems can quickly arise.

N.B: It is important to make the distinction between a translator and an interpreter. A translator converts words from one language into the corresponding words of another language. Words that have been translated into another language can often have meanings that were not intended. An interpreter, however, conveys meaning from one language to another, so in most business situations it is advisable to use an interpreter rather than a translator.

Written communication

When organisations operate in an international context, it may lead to problems with written communication. Written documents that may be considered appropriate in one culture may not necessarily be appropriate for another culture. Also the level of formality needed in written documents can vary from culture to culture. Writing styles commonly used in some cultures may be offensive to others.

The content and style of written organisational communications may differ between cultures. In some cultures, a direct approach is favoured. In others, the main message is preceded by polite words that have little or nothing to do with the main purpose of the message. The message may then be followed by polite words that bear little or no relationship to the purpose of the communication.

Strong statements in written messages in some cultures may be considered as improper or even rude in other cultures. For example, most written communications from Japan are apologetic in tone, containing statements that place the writer in an inferior position to the recipient. Japanese executives may consider written documents received from American executives too bold and directional. Conversely, the American perception may be that the Japanese are weak and uncommitted to their positions.

Customs and practices in written communications vary greatly from culture to culture. For example, the word 'dear' has a special connotation in Spain, as the word is a term of endearment or affection for a loved one or family member. Therefore, when writing a business letter to a Spanish person, the salutation should not contain the word 'Dear'.

Non-verbal communication

Dealing with language is only the beginning. Non-verbal barriers to intercultural communication can often pose greater problems than language barriers. Many non-verbal cues carry different meanings in different cultures – in some cultures their meaning may be strong, while in others they may mean very little or indeed nothing at all.

Non-verbal communication includes stance, facial expressions and gestures. However it also involves seating arrangements, personal distance, sense of time, dress and pitch or tone of voice. For example, the British typically regard Germans and Americans (among others) as speaking too loudly. However, in Arabic countries, loudness is associated with sincerity and forcefulness, but not when dealing with superiors, when a softer tone is used.

Non-verbal communications operate subconsciously, and as a result generate feelings which are difficult to recognise and rationalise.

Non-verbal communication is, therefore, a very powerful means of conveying feelings but it is extremely difficult to control.


Frequently the question arises concerning whose cultural customs, traditions and practices should take precedence in international communications. It is widely accepted that successful communication must be approached from the viewpoint of the receiver rather than the sender, so we must adapt to the cultural customs and practices of people from other cultures when engaging in intercultural communication. International workers should become aware of, and adapt to, cultural customs and traditions of their business partners in other countries. To be successful in cross-cultural communication, it is vital to understand the world as others see it.

How to improve cross-cultural communication

  • Improve cross-cultural communication by visiting embassies in countries where you are conducting business. Names of translators and interpreters can often be obtained from these embassies, along with other useful information, such as details of local business customs and practices.
  • Study the cultures with which business is to be transacted. Cross-cultural training courses can be used to help prepare for international working, and are often available at colleges, universities and through private consultants. Additionally, organisations can develop and conduct their own training programmes specifically designed for this purpose.
  • People within the organisation who have conducted business with other countries/cultures can be a valuable resources, as their experience and skills can provide useful information/tips. Official bodies (such as the Foreign Office or Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in the UK) can provide helpful information to organisations engaging in international business activities.


  • Career mentoring resources

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