Intercultural and Nonverbal Communication Challenges

Executive summary

Cross-cultural communication is an aspect that has increasingly developed with the rising activities that are conducted across different cultures. It is a form of communication that involves people from different cultural backgrounds. This report centres on a critical incident that involved a host of others from a different cultural setup and me. There was no common language we would use and attempts to communicate both orally and non-verbally came with challenges.

The report analyses challenges that come with intercultural communication, as well as a discussion of conclusions that can be drawn from such obstacles. The paper further illustrates different theories that propound different arguments regarding inter-cultural communication. Possible recommendations are also given, which can help improve cross-cultural communication.


Communication is the act of giving and receiving information, either verbally or non-verbally from one party to another. When the receiver of a message provides the necessary feedback, the communication process is complete. Verbal communication entails sending information or a given message orally via a common language understood by both parties involved in the communication. The main parties in communication include the sender and receiver.

On the other hand, nonverbal communication is communication achieved through signs or body movements. Communication can either be intentional or unintentional. Therefore, the objective of communication is meant to create an understanding between two involved parties.

On the other hand, the term “culture” is used in respect of varied knowledge, shared beliefs, and practices of a given society. These practices constitute the day to day lifestyle of a given community and its member’s interaction. It should be noted that culture is an aspect that is passed on from one generation to another. One such aspect of culture is the language or mode of communication (Muijs, 2007).

With the advent of globalisation, intercultural interaction has become inevitable. This way, there are numerous activities that involve different groups of people from across the world. For instance, people engage in aspects such as international trade, which cuts across borders. In turn, this has led to the rise and need for cross-cultural communication, which involves communication across one’s culture.

Effective intercultural communication is emerging as a big determinant of success in organisations and even governments. Cross-cultural communication is essentially concerned with how people from different cultural settings get to communicate with each other. Aspects such as behaviour, way of socialisation, working, and eating become important when people with different cultural backgrounds come to work together in the same organisation. This makes the study of cross-cultural communication important since it has some impacts on the performance of an organisation (Rumsey, 2007).

The necessity for intercultural communication came with the onset of the Cold War between the Eastern and Western countries trying to promote either capitalism or socialism. In this case, either country would train their nationals on the language and culture of targeted areas. This was done for the respective countries to have business openings in the target area. This was meant to enable countries to increase their influence. For instance, the United States enacted the 1946 Foreign Service Act through which the government trained its citizens to prepare them to take posts outside their country (Stoughton and Sivertson, 2005).

Intercultural communication is not only concerned with the study of language as it may be perceived. However, it also encompasses other aspects too. These aspects include culture, psychology, and other underlying factors of communication as a whole. This study enables us to understand why there are varying communication means and why certain behaviours are exhibited by various cultural groups. It helps in understanding the diversity of people.

Thus, the paper promotes working and living harmoniously regardless of differing backgrounds. Understanding cultural diversity is essential since it promotes the management of cultural diversity. The two aspects are critical in modern-day organisations. In this case, organisations that embrace cultural diversity are set to achieve great success. Thus, people from different cultural backgrounds are able to learn from one another for the good of the organisation.

Therefore, the management of such an organisation should be ready to face the challenges that come with diversity. In the management of cultural diversity, the concept of communication is very critical. Therefore, the management should embrace skills that enhance the management of cultural diversity (Mehta, Anderson, Dubinsky, Polsa & Mazur, 2010).

Research process

The research process involved an in-depth analysis of a critical incident that occurred. I had just arrived in New Zealand. During this time, I was totally unable to speak English. My host initially tried to communicate in English, but that verbal means of communication proved futile. This made my host turn to non-verbal communication as a means through which we could communicate. This included the use of body language, which was a bit better than verbal communication.

Notably, the two means of communication came with challenges since I was in a new cultural setting. At one point, while I was communication with my host using the non-verbal means, I pretended that I understood what she was saying by putting on a smile and laughing. However, the situation was not calling for a smile since she was telling me of someone who had died. She became furious all because of my mistaken belief that I knew what the signs she was using meant.

I too experienced another aspect of cultural behaviour while with my host. She refused all the time I did offer to help her in her work. She also gave me straight answers like “no” when I asked for something. The priority of her consideration, when planning to go for a holiday was amusing. She was more concerned with the places we would visit rather than who will accompany us. This report is premised on the experience I had with my host. Thus, there is a limitation, especially about getting the opportunity to analyse other people’s experiences.

Findings and discussion

Several inferences on cross-cultural communication can be drawn from this incident, as highlighted in this paper.

Inadequacy of oral communication

First of all, it portrays a verbal communication as inadequate and a hindrance in cross-cultural communication that needs to be improved. It is one area that is necessary for enhancing the delivery of effective inter-cultural messages. When put into use, verbal communication may incorporate non-verbal cues to relay the meaning of the message. In this critical incident, my oral communication was poor and not supplemented with non-verbal elements of communication. There was no complimentary of oral and non-verbal communication.

Misinterpretation of non-verbal means of communication

Nonverbal communication employs the use of body movements to send a message. For instance, it can be affected by eye contact or facial expression. Eye contact can lay different messages when used in different cultural settings. In one of the cultures, it can be taken as a sign of admiration and confidence. However, in others, it may portray dishonesty, disrespectful, and negative in general. The same applies to facial expression. In the given incident, my facial expression accompanied by laughing when my host was telling me about a sorrowful matter was a clear way of showing how easy misinterpretation can result in a misunderstanding.

Theories of intercultural communication

There have been different arguments regarding intercultural communication, some of which are embodied in the following theories.

Cross-cultural adaptation theory

This is one of the theories explaining inter-cultural communication. According to this theory, as people change residence from one cultural setting to another, they adapt to the host environment. Such movement may be driven by various factors such as searching for new opportunities, adventures, studies and the military as a matter of duty. This theory is based on the fact that humans tend to struggle to find stability in an adversarial setting.

The theory holds that such adaptive changes may come as a matter of an individual’s strong will to learn and adapt to the host environment. This makes it necessary for the visitor to learn the communication system and culture of the host setting (Gudykunst, 2005). In my given incident, I had to learn to accept some of the practices of my host. However, I found some of the practices somehow weird such as the mode of responding with a straight “no” for an answer which in my culture would be deemed rude.

This theory is also prevalent in psychology, where its study of human behaviour is explored. Under the study, aspects like cross-cultural communication are examined. The outcome of such research is well-founded arguments and practices that can be employed and see the success of an organisation (Glăveanu, 2010).

Coordinated management of meaning theory

This theory is based on the fact that people develop meaning out of exchanging information during communication or socially relating. The social realities that come out during interaction lead the other party to think of a way to handle that reality. It is the party who has learnt some reality to decide what action will be apt in that scenario. The response may be deceitful one or a positive one depending on how that party has conceived it in his or her mind. The theory uses constitutive and regulative rules. While the former helps the communicator interpret the message, the latter determines the response of the communicator (Kashima, Kashima & Bain, 2010).

In the critical incident, which I stated earlier, my host’s reaction to my smiling when she was telling me of someone who had died can be argued to have been guided by this theory. When I realised she was acting rather unusual, I too changed by stopping to laugh.

Intercultural communication competence theory

This theory is concerned with competent cross-cultural communication. Therefore, this theory labels one who can affirm the identities of other people’s culture a competent communicator. This is an individual who can communicate in various cultural setups with ease. Aspects such as proficiency of that person in the host culture’s language; the ability to know when to use polite terms and as a better understanding of non-verbal communication are used to assess if a person is a competent communicator (Wiseman, 2003). Intercultural communication competence is said to be effective when the communicator overcomes the tendency to think that the host culture’s shortcomings are natural and that his own cultural aspects are the correct and complete ones.

For instance, in my critical incident, when my host would give me a “no” for a response whenever I asked to use something in the household, I would perceive it as negative. I was greatly influenced by my home setting where a plain “no” for a response is tagged as negative. The same applied to when my host was concentrating on which places we should visit over the holidays. Instead of concentrating on those who were to accompany us as it is done in my culture, she focussed on places where we were to visit. The inter-cultural competence theory is to the effect that a competent communicator should be able to overcome issues like these.

Language socialisation theory

This theory takes into account the process of language socialisation in cross-cultural settings. The theory acknowledges that a person experiences both primary language socialisation when young and continues to experience secondary language socialisation as he or she grows up. The secondary language socialisation comes as one grows and interacts with other people with different cultural backgrounds like in schools, workplace, or change of residential areas.

Barab and Plucker (2012) asserted that the second language socialisation is a process of intercultural language socialisation since language learning amounts to a study of a new culture. In this case, language is acquired through a process of intercultural interaction in a given social or political arena. Thus, it views interactive routines as important tenets of language socialisation and inter-cultural communication at large. The theory holds that the social-cultural settings such as the home, workplace, school and community among others do contribute to a large extent secondary language development (Watson-Gegeo & Nielson 2003).

In my critical incident, arguments of this theory can be illustrated. I was in a new cultural setting, and the host language to me was a secondary language. This can be explained by the language socialisation theory. Such inter-cultural interaction is what leads to the development of intercultural communication. This is necessary to enable effective communication between different cultural groups.


Inter-cultural communication has emerged as a crucial aspect that cannot be overlooked in the current setting of any organisation and even governments. Inter-cultural communication concerns itself with communication between one cultural setup and another. It has developed as a result of issues like globalisation and inter-cultural trading, change of workplace, and studying in a different cultural setup, among other reasons, as discussed in this report.

Several theories have come up with various arguments that try to explain the origin and how intercultural communication has evolved. Such include the cross-cultural adaptation theory, coordinated management of meaning theory, intercultural communication competence theory and Language socialisation theory. Inter-cultural communication entails both verbal and non-verbal communication means across different cultural setups. There are a number of challenges that come as a result of intercultural communication barriers as illustrated from the critical incident given in the report. Such challenges can be overcome by putting in consideration a number of factors like development of a positive attitude towards new cultural behaviours.


Understand and appreciate the aspect of cultural diversity

This is vital because a person sending a message, and the receiver do not have to be from the same culture. However, despite coming from different cultural backgrounds, effective communication is necessary for the organisation (Rubenfeld and Clément, 2012). If the parties communicating do appreciate their cultural diversity, some offensive behaviours to another culture will be taken lightly by the other party. In this case, it will lead to minimal disagreements and conflicts in an organisation. This is necessary for the effective functioning of the organisation. This will, in turn, promote effective cross-cultural communication (Guillot, 2012).

Promoting the development of awareness of individual cultures

This is another important aspect that needs to be encouraged. Increased awareness of another person’s culture will significantly help one in choosing the manner of handling the other person. This depends on if the parties that are meeting for a social or office function. It will be particularly detrimental if the parties communicating for business purpose and a misunderstanding arises due to unawareness of each other’s culture. It is true that the difference in the cultural background of the parties communicating can be a hindrance to communication. Thus, an organisation should educate its staff on the cultural expectations of a new area in which they want to enter (Poór, Vološin, Engle, Machová, and Karoliny, 2012).

Exercising tolerance of other cultures

In a cross-cultural communication set up, it is paramount for the parties being tolerant of each other. This is critical to enhance effective communication. This is important because some practices may be offensive to another. This is especially in the case where the subject matter may appear normal in one culture and not in the other. Therefore, cultural relativism is highly encouraged. For instance, the slowness of working or grasping of things should be tolerated if the trainee comes from a culture that embraces the sluggish way of doing things. This way, the trainee will feel appreciated within the organisation (Campbell, 2012).

Seeking assistance where necessary

This is important since it will help one to know more about the new culture thus avoiding unnecessary conflicts. It is important to seek the services of a translator if need be. It will save time and the strain of getting to understand each other. When assistance is sought, it can help to clarify a simple matter and thus avoid unnecessary conflicts (Campbell, 2012).

Being simple

When communicating with a party from a different cultural setup, use simple terms and words. Avoid complex phrases that may make the other party more confused. This will help make communication effective. It should be noted that people from different cultures do not have a comprehensive knowledge of the new language. Therefore, using complex terminologies will easily lead to miscommunication between the parties from two different cultural settings.

Avoid ethnocentrism

Ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s culture is better than another one’s culture. This makes the one who feels dominant to look down upon the other whom he or she perceives to be inferior. This can be a great hindrance to inter-cultural communication. In this case, one party may not pay close attention to the other from a different culture. However, appreciating other people’s culture is critical in understanding one another. Therefore, if ethnocentricism is avoided, it may lead to improved inter-cultural communication (Agboka, 2012).


Agboka, G. (2012). Liberating Intercultural Technical Communication from “Large Culture” Ideologies: Constructing Culture Discursively, Journal of Technical Writing & Communication, 42 (2): 159-181.

Barab, S.A. and Plucker, J.A. (2012). Smart People or Smart Contexts? Cognition, Ability, and Talent Development in an Age of Situated Approaches to Knowing and Learning. Educational Psychologist, 37(3): 165-182.

Campbell, N. (2012). Promoting Intercultural Contact on Campus: A Project to Connect and Engage International and Host Students. Journal of Studies in International Education, 16(3): 205-227.

Glăveanu, V-P. (2010). Principles for a Cultural Psychology of Creativity. Culture & Psychology, 16(2): 147-163.

Gudykunst, W. B. (2005). Theorizing about intercultural communication. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage.

Guillot, M-N. (2012). Cross-cultural communication at a theoretical and methodological crossroads: cultural and media interfaces. Language & Intercultural Communication, 12(4): 277-283.

Kashima, Y., Kashima, E.S. & Bain, P. (2010). Communication and essentialism: Grounding the Shared Reality of a Social Category. Social Cognition, 28(3): 306-328.

Mehta, R., Anderson, R.E., Dubinsky, A.J., Polsa, P. & Mazur, J. (2010). Managing International Distribution Channel Partners: A Cross-Cultural Approach. Journal of Marketing Channels, 17(2): 89-117.

Muijs, D. (2007). Leadership in full-service extended schools: communicating across cultures. School Leadership & Management, 27(4): 347-362.

Poór, J., Vološin, M., Engle, A., Machová, R. and Karoliny, M. (2012). Human Resource Management Under Changes at Foreign Subsidiaries in Slovakia in light of Regional Comparison, Scientific Papers of the University of Pardubice. Series D, Faculty of Economics & Administration, 18(24): 137-151.

Rubenfeld, S. and Clément, R. (2012). Intercultural Conflict and Mediation: An Intergroup Perspective. Language Learning, 62(4): 1205-1230

Rumsey, D. (2007). Intercultural Communication and Globalization. Web.

Stoughton, E.H. and Sivertson, C. (2005). Communicating across cultures: discursive challenges and racial identity formation in narratives of middle school students, Race, Ethnicity & Education, 8(3): 277-295.

Watson-Gegeo, K. A. & Nielson, S. (2003). Language socialization in SLA. In C. J. Doughty & M. Long (Eds.), The handbook of second language acquisition (pp. 155-177). Oxford: Blackwell.

Wiseman, R. L. (2003). Intercultural communication competence. In W. B. Gudykunst (Ed.), Cross-cultural and intercultural communication, (167–190). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.