Barriers to Cross-Cultural Business Communication
August 8, 2022 by Bill Rosenthal

Barriers to Cross-Cultural Business Communication

Cross-cultural communication is defined by Gotland University as “a process of exchanging, negotiating, and mediating one's cultural differences through language, non-verbal gestures, and space relationships.”  

In business, cross-cultural communication plays a critical role in successfully carrying out business with teams and stakeholders in other areas of the globe. When the communication is effective, everyone benefits from increased bandwidth, institutional knowledge, and competitive advantage. Ineffective communication, however, can offend, confuse, or send a misconstrued message which could lead to broken relations with customers, partners, vendors, and employees.

Language Barriers

A common cross-cultural barrier in business communication is of course, language. Although English is regarded as the common international language of business, not every business globally uses English on a regular basis. Employees may have more difficulty when communicating in English, which can lead to misunderstandings when taking direction, understanding level of urgency, and communicating issues or concerns. Never assume that because your instructions receive head nods that your content has been understood. Check for real understanding by asking others to summarize what they just heard you say.

Cultural Barriers

Every culture has a different set of values, business ethics, accepted behavior, and decorum− even different facial expressions and gestures.  It is important to understand these differences – to show genuine respect for other cultural mores –when communicating with professionals from other cultures. For example, in the United States it is common for the speaker to share personal anecdotes to build audience rapport, but in other countries this is considered tiresome.  Humor can be especially tricky to employ; better to be straightforward rather than run the risk that your joke may inadvertently embarrass or insult the listener.

Presentation Style

Believe it or not, culture influences how people in different countries prefer to receive information. For example, how interactive you should make your presentation depends on the culture to which you present. In general, English-speaking cultures like presentations to be lively and interactive. However, Eastern Europeans are accustomed to presentations that are formal, detailed, and with few interruptions; questions are answered at the end of a presentation. Japanese audiences expect more technical information. Canadians, like Americans, enjoy a brisk pace; and Latin American audiences prefer a speech with a high level of emotional appeal.

The key with any group of listeners from another culture is to do your homework, and don’t rely on your personal frame of reference when addressing an audience of another culture. By focusing on their own frames of reference, you acknowledge their customs and perspective, which goes far towards winning them over.