Barriers to communication

Business has changed significantly over the last decades. Nowadays, almost all of the 185 countries in the world buy from abroad a larger proportion of what they consume than they did 50 years ago (Mead, 1998). We are living in an interdependent world economy which requires organisations to think global and in companies that act on an international level multinational teams have become an everyday reality.

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However, international mergers or acquisitions that failed due to cultural differences or a lack of communication are often on the news. Communication plays an important role in building up successful or satisfying relationships, especially on the international level. But despite the highly praised and steadily increasing globalisation, we do not live in a completely borderless world yet, as cultural differences still play an important role (Edwards et al., 2006).

This essay deals with the question as to how understanding the cultural values can help to overcome the barriers to communication within a multicultural team. As a starting point, a definition of a team will be given and it is to be clarified what exactly is meant by an individual’s culture and cultural values. The connection between one’s culture and its influence on the behavior will be drawn and communication barriers in intercultural communication will be presented. Finally, it will be evaluated how these barriers can be overcome and why the knowledge of each other’s cultural values can be vital to successful communication.

There exist many different definitions of a ‘team’, and in everyday life, people tend to be very generous with this phrase. It is generally accepted that nearly any group of people can be regarded as a team, for example the staff in a supermarket or 100 students in a lecture. But it is worth taking a look to clarify the actual meaning behind the term ‘team’, which is defined as a “small number of people who are equally committed to a common purpose, performance goals and working approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable” (Katzenbach and Smith in Boddy, 2005, p. 560).

Concerning a multicultural team, Adler (2002) connects the word “multicultural” to teams where at least three or more cultures are represented (Adler, 2002). Nowadays, multicultural teams are becoming increasingly common in a more and more globalised and diversified workplace (Adler, 2002). But as it will also be demonstrated later on, the more different cultures there are in a team and the more diverse they are the higher is the danger of the performance being hindered by intercultural differences. To evaluate the influence of one’s culture on the behavior within a team, a look at the definition of culture is needed. Although there exist many definitions of this term in the literature, the probably best known is that from Hofstede which says that

“…[c]ulture is the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one human group from another […] Culture, in this sense, includes systems of values; and values are among the building blocks of culture.” (Hofstede in Mead, 1998, p. 4). Following this definition, someone’s culture can be seen as something that is individual to a particular group whose member’s behavior it influences in uniform and predictable ways (Mead, 1998). It is learned and passed on from one generation to the next and includes a certain system of values, norms and behaviors (Mead, 1998).

Cultural values in this context are an individual’s persuasions about what is desirable and what is not (Harzing et al., 2004). They may never be articulated and as such ingrained and slow to change. Cultural values are learned in the early childhood and strongly influence behavior (Mead, 1998). For example, a person values cooperation and thus try to create a collaborative atmosphere at work, be it consciously or unconsciously (Harzing et al., 2004). Meanwhile, norms refer to the rules that are considered as the appropriate behavior within a society showing people what they must or should do (Harzing et al., 2004). For example, children can be expected in a culture to be polite to their parents which refers to the implicit value that respect to older generations is desirable (Harzing et al., 2004).

Behavior includes any form of a human being’s action. The behavior is usually influenced by values and norms, but those are not binding (Harzing et al., 2004). For example, if a person values honesty a lot, it does not automatically mean that he or she always tells the truth. Summing it up, culture can be seen as the product of national patterns of early childhood, formative experiences and education, language, religion and geography (Edwards et al., 2006).

At the workplace, differences in national cultures affect attitudes in negotiations, create perceptions about for example the appropriate pay systems and the importance of hierarchy and centralization or may influence attitudes towards job and career mobility (Edwards et al., 2006). Cultural values are seen as deep-seated and enduring, varying systematically between different cultures and also conditioning what counts as acceptable organizational practice (Mead, 1998).

When working with or in multicultural teams, it hence has to be taken into account that an individual’s culture influences its behavior immensely. Especially to teamwork, communication is something very vital. Presuming that every individual has its own culture and that every culture carries stereotypes about the ideal model, way and style of communication, people with different cultural backgrounds may interpret the same message in a completely different way (Gesteland, 2001).

If one looks at a basic communication model, there are six factors that are involved in every communication process: the addressor, the addressee, the content of the message, how it is transmitted in terms of language, medium and style, the time when it is transmitted and the location of the communication (Mead, 1998). A message is considered as successfully communicated when it is also appropriate to its context, but in international communication or communication between people with different cultural backgrounds, an important problem is that the same message is often interpreted differently due to the contrasting cultural priorities (Mead, 1998). Therefore, several barriers can evolve and disturb the communication between members of a multicultural team.

Another possible source of communication problems within a multicultural team may as well be the nonverbal communication. Culture furnishes people with a certain set of unspoken messages communicated nonverbal, for example through gestures or facial expressions (Hofstede et al., 2002). People from different cultural backgrounds may also interpret the same gesture in completely different ways. For example, in Eastern Countries people give little value to expressing their feelings facially while much attention is given to mimics in Europe (Gesteland, 2001).