Cultural Barriers to Communication

Definition of Cultural Barriers

“Culture is the pattern of taken-for-granted assumptions about how a given collection of people should think, act, and feel as they go about their daily affairs”
-Joynt & Warner, 1996

Culture is all socially transmitted behavior, arts, architectures, languages, signs, symbols, ideas, beliefs, norms, traditions, rituals, etc. which is learnt and shared in a particular social group of the same nationality, ethnicity, religion, etc. It is handed down from one generation to another. It gives people their way of seeing the world and interpreting life. A single culture has many sub-cultures.

Cultural diversity makes communication difficult as the mindset of people of different cultures are different, the language, signs and symbols are also different. Different cultures have different meaning of words, behaviors and gestures. Culture also gives rise to prejudices, ethnocentrism, manners and opinions. It forms the way people think and behave. When people belonging to different cultures communicate, these factors can become barriers.

The way you communicate is affected by the culture you were brought up in. The opposite is also true. Culture is, to a large extent, determined by the way we communicate. In America, people communicate freely and that is a part of their culture. In Germany, an Indian who is used to being very indirect with his communication might find their direct way of speaking rude. Being direct is part of the German culture and it is reflected in the way they communicate. Communication shapes culture and culture shapes communication.

cultural barriers to communication

Causes of Cultural Barriers


There are billions of people in the world who do not understand English or cannot communicate in English properly. Not speaking properly can cause various misunderstandings and be a barrier to communication.

Different cultures have developed their own language as a part of their heritage. People are comfortable communicating in their own language whereas have to work hard to learn new languages.

For example, separation of East and West Germany for 40 years caused the language to differ a lot. The dialect became very different as people of East Germany had an influence of Russian language whereas West Germany had influence of English. They had a barrier in communicating with each other for decades.

Even when people try to express in their own language, many misunderstandings arise. It becomes more profound in people speaking different languages.

Signs and Symbols (Semantics)

Non-verbal communication cannot be relied upon in communication between people from different cultures as that is also different like language. Signs, symbols and gestures varies in different cultures.

For example, the sign “thumbs up” is taken as a sign of approval and wishing luck in most of the cultures but is taken as an insult in Bangladesh. Similarly, the “V” hand gesture with palm faced outside or inside means victory and peace in US, but back of hand facing someone showing the sign is taken as insulting in many cultures.

The culture sets some meanings of signs like the ones mentioned above, which might not be the same in other culture.

Stereotypes and Prejudices

Stereotyping is the process of creating a picture of a whole culture, overgeneralizing all people belonging to the same culture as having similar characteristics and categorizing people accordingly. It is a belief about a certain group and is mostly negative.

Stereotyping can be done on the basis of many things like nationality, gender, race, religion, ethnicity, age, etc.

For example, Asian students are stereotyped to be good at Math which is a positive stereotype. But, there is also cultural stereotype of all people following a particular religion as being violent like Islam and is negative stereotyping.

Negative stereotyping creates prejudices as it provokes judgmental attitudes. People look at those cultures as evil and treat the people following the religion wickedly. Media is a tool of mass communication which promotes stereotypes and prejudices and creates more communication barriers.

Behavior and Beliefs

Cultural differences causes behavior and personality differences like body language, thinking, communication, manners, norms, etc. which leads to miscommunication.

For example, in some cultures eye contact is important whereas in some it is rude and disrespectful.

Culture also sets a specific norms which dictates behavior as they have guidelines for accepted behavior. It explains what is right and wrong. Every action is influenced by culture like ambitions, careers, interests, values, etc. Beliefs are also another cause for cultural barrier.

For instance, mostly, people who believe in god can cope with their lows of life easily than atheists but atheists are more hardworking at all times which relates to their behavior and communication.

Appropriate amount of emotion that must be displayed is also different in different cultures. Roles are defined by culture. Good communication only occurs between people with different cultures if both accept their differences with open mind.


ethnocentrism causes barriers in communication

Ethnocentrism is the process of dividing cultures as “us” and “them”. The people of someone's own culture are categorized as in-group and the other culture is out-group. There is always greater preference to in-group. There is an illusion of out-group as evil and inferior. This evaluation is mostly negative. If the culture is similar to us, then it is good and if is dissimilar, it is bad. Other’s culture is evaluated and assessed with the standard being their own culture. Ethnocentrism affects the understanding of message, and encourages hostility.

For example, the books in schools use reference of their own culture to describe other cultures by either showing common things or differences.


Similar to ethnocentrism and stereotyping, religion also disrupts communication as it creates a specific image of people who follow other religions. People find it difficult to talk to people who follow different religions. Religious views influence how people think about others. It creates differences in opinions.

For example, in Pakistan, the Christians have to speak up for their rights as the majority is of Islam and the Christians are discriminated. There is also a lack of communication between these religious groups.

Overcoming cultural barriers

There are other cultural barriers like frames of reference, political opinions, priorities of life, age, etc. Cross cultural communication is not only a barrier but also an opportunity for creativity, new perspectives, and openness to new ideas and unity in the world.

To make communication effective, the causes of cultural communication barriers must be eliminated as much as possible. Cross cultural understanding must be increased as it decreases communication barrier caused by culture difference.