Intercultural Communication Breakdown


Cultural learning is considered to be an important step in the process of personality moral make-up formation; intercultural awareness can become a significant compass in the way to understanding the foreign atmosphere and cultural development and helping to find a common language with the representatives of other nationalities.

In an apparent case of intercultural miscommunication that is caused by differences in religion, the narrator of the case who is a Muslim was invited by his Australian friend and on arrival, his host, Nick Ston, had already prepared pork meal as dinner for the visitor unknown to Nick that his visitor does not take pork due to the fact that it is against the Islamic culture. The effects of such communication breakdown on general intercultural communication and social relationships are far-reaching. This report, therefore, discusses the issue of intercultural communication breakdown, its effect on general communication effectiveness and reviews ways to avoid intercultural communication breakdown.

Background information

Literal or formal communication is the process that involves sharing and passing information and ideas between individuals in well-established systems. It involves organized systems via which intended messages are passed from the sender or the source of the message (encoder) to the intended recipient (decoder) and then obtaining of the feedback from the recipient by the communicator (Beal, 1992:27). As such, effective communication will only exist if the intended message is successfully delivered to the intended recipient and appropriate feedbacks is obtained from the latter (Kramcsh 1993:231).

In social life, plenty of informal communication takes place every day. It is important to note that communication is not always explicit, individuals communicate in their behaviors, organization, mannerisms, dressing styles, gestures, and many other forms of non-verbal communication. Ideally, individuals can say so much without uttering a word, hence it is possible for an individual to decode so much information about a person or a place without explicit talk (Liddicoat, 1997:77).

In line with the same and according to Liddicoat, (1997:27), culture is behavioral hence it is communicative. By studying other people’s culture and cultural practices we get to learn so much about them and their way of life and hence we efficiently relate with them without cases of miscommunication occurring. As such the appropriateness of action between two or more individuals or groups of people is adversely halted either by failure of one or both parties to correctly decode information from the message sent by either.

The success of social communication shapes the quality of social relationship. However, the communication process is not always successful due to the numerous barriers that may exist in between the communication processes.

These barriers include the physical barriers, environmental barriers and the cultural barriers (Beal, 1992:23). Any barriers that occur within the communication process amount to miscommunication, where the intent message is not passed across to the recipient whether formal or informal. When an individual decodes the wrong information than what was intended by the recipient, the objective of the communication process is not met hence the whole process is a failure (Beal, 1992:31).

Intercultural communication on the other hand is the communication (either formal of informal) that occurs between individuals of different cultural backgrounds (Kramcsh, 1993). For instance, individuals that subscribes to two different religions such as Muslim and Christianity, individuals from different races such as the Indians and Americans among others. Due to the cultural variations among the different groups of people cultural barriers are prevalent in the intercultural communication and a major cause of intercultural miscommunication/ communication breakdown.

Various intercultural situation cause personal cultural superiority feeling for own culture between the participants; as a result it can lead to negative perception and suspicion on the part of the outsider. It should be noted that anxiety and fear followed by some level of uncertainty as to the other culture can arise together with defensiveness toward the representative of the other culture. It is interesting to analyze the cases of intercultural communication breakdown based on values, world view, behaviors and other normative beliefs.

  • In case of two participants of some intercultural communication have various beliefs patterns, they will compulsory have different assumptions responding them to stimuli;
  • So, approaching a communication transaction on the basis of various assumptions leads to different perception of the elicited meaning and stimuli.

The aspects mentioned above are considered to be the principle reason for intercultural miscommunication reached through low similarities of the stimuli (messages) between the representatives of different cultures.

The statement of the problem

In this case, the narrator explains a situation where he was invited by his college colleague who is of a different religion to his home having not explained his culture to the host, the latter prepared pork for him unknown to the host that it was against the friend’s culture to eat pork. On the host point of view, he was preparing pork for his visitors because it was normal according to Traditions and culture to take pork. In the narrator’s religion (culture) or rather among the Muslim fraternity, it is against their culture to take pork.

As a result, there is a communication breakdown between the narrator and his host Nick Ston and which threatens to affect the quality of their socialization/ relationship. While Nick Ston may have offended his visitor (the narrator) by preparing a pork dinner, the latter ought to have explained explicitly to his host that his culture does not allow him to have pork for dinner since Islamic religion forbids it.

Following the case, the narrator apologized to the host for playing a part in the resulting intercultural communication breakdown for failing to inform his host about his culture and practices prior to the visit. Also, the host apologized because he also failed to inquest into the visitor’s culture on invitation. A lesson that both parties learn form this case therefore is that intercultural communication can therefore be prevented if both parties involved in the cross cultural communication play their role effectively and inquire into each others culture so as to acquire intercultural competence (fully know each others culture and practices typical to them).

In an effort to avoid such communication breakdown, when he was invited with his wife by an Australian friend, the narrator having learnt a lesson from the previous intercultural communication breakdown episode took the initiative to inform his host about his religion via an email prior to the visit. This paper therefore reports into the issue of and causes of cross cultural communication breakdown and identifies measures that can be taken to avoid such a situation in future.

Causes of cross cultural communication breakdown

The investigation of intercultural communication breakdown should be focused on the principles of the obligatory scale; it means that the wider the rate of allowed behaviors is, the wider communicative field will be between the representatives of various cultures. It should be noted that taboos, being the principle form of obligatory injunction, influence the intercultural communication perception.

The analysis of the communicative failure between the representative of Muslim culture and Australian one mentioned above is considered to be a vivid example of taboos significance. The prohibition of pork eating by Muslim culture appeared to be the central ground for cultural; miscommunication for its representatives. It is important to underline the fact that the violation of obligatory behaviors level in various intercultural situations results in the offensiveness of the person suffering his cultural norms violation which interfere with definite transactions. As it was shown, the risk of intercultural communication failure is very high in case of lack of knowledge as to the behaviors of “must do-must not do”. (Sarbaugh, 1988:74).

It is necessary to highlight the fact that the awareness and respect for the traditions, peculiarities and beliefs of other cultures are the background of effective intercultural communication. Intercultural communication breakdown is the result obligatory behaviors ignorance leading to offense and negative perception of the communication process. Cultures usually have different rules aimed at re-establishing the broken relationship resulted from violation of “must do” behaviors; the knowledge and appropriate observation of these regulations can lead to transactions breakage. The analysis of various cultures gives an opportunity to stress strong cultural miscommunication between the representatives of Turkish nation and Germans. It can be explained by the following reasons:

  • Differences in political and legal status;
  • The level of inequality of Turkish and German adolescents considering their career prospects and professional development;
  • Sharp differences in cultural values and norms.

It is important to note that German population is considered to be more susceptible to hostile and prejudiced relationships to foreigners. Intercultural interactions between the representatives of Turkish and German culture can be based on religious beliefs as some innocent remarks from Turks aimed at Christianity can be perceived as a serious threat to German national religion (miscommunication in this case is the result of historical events and formed prejudices).

In most cases intercultural communication breakdown is identified as the problem connected with interdiscourse differences. It should be noted that in most case intercultural communication is the result of non-conscious actions and practices.

The intercultural variations among different group of people are the main source of intercultural miscommunication or rather communication breakdown. Different groups of people have distinct cultures that are greatly entrenched in the variations of the cultural elements and which results in differences of behavior, way of life and socialization (Liddicoat, 1997: 75). These ranges from the language of communication, the religions that individuals in the society subscribes to, the way of dressing, the architectural designs that they use in building their houses and other structures, traditions, customs, believes and cultural heritage all of which forms a means of societal distinct identification.

The consequences of intercultural communication barriers

From the above case, where the narrator who is a Muslim was invited by a Christian friend to his house and there emerged a case of communication breakdown due to the differences in culture of the two people, the adverse effects of such a situation are clearly displayed. For instance, the host who is a Christian ended up preparing pork for the Islamic visitor unknown to the host that in Islam culture individuals don’t take pork.

The danger that is likely to emerge out of this is that the relationship between the two is likely to be adversely affected since the visitor will be offended by the host for preparing pork and which is against his own culture to take. On the other hand, the host is likely to feel offended for the visitor having declined to take the dinner he prepared for him or rather feel embarrassed for preparing the visitor a dinner that he can take. Intercultural communication breakdown comes with absolutely adverse effects on the cross-cultural relationship.

In this world, individuals from across the globe and different cultures find themselves socializing or relating in one way or the other either formally or informally (social relationship). For instance, international trade greatly relies on the effectiveness of the social ties that exists among the trading parties perhaps who subscribes to different cultures.

For such trading relations to be successful therefore, intercultural communications barriers must be minimized to ensure that there is limited intercultural communication breakdown between the involved parties. In addition, human beings are social beings hence in ones life, an individual find himself or herself in a one form of social relationship or the other, perhaps with a person of different culture. As such, the presence of cultural barriers in the relationship will obviously lead to communication breakdown between the interacting parties thus halting the relationship.

Intercultural communication barriers and the resulting communication breakdown also have very adverse effects on marketing effectiveness especially in circumstances where marketing is cross-cultural in nature. For a marketer to succeed in different culture markets, the latter must be fully aware of the markets since it is this culture which shapes the consumption, patterns, habits the nature of the products that the market is to be targeted with, promotion strategies, and pricing of commodities (Liddicoat, 1997:87).

Communication breakdown that would result from the cross cultural barriers between the marketers and the target markets will obviously lead to the failure of the marketing strategy that a marketer employs.

Events such as tourism require an environment where minimal intercultural communication barriers exist to thrive. This is because tourism involves individuals traveling to parts where the natives’ culture varies from their own. As a result, it becomes imperative that both the tourists and the host (mainly tourism marketers as well as the locals who are involved in their reception) learn each others culture to avoid intercultural communication breakdown, since the latter may adversely affect intercultural tourism. Furthermore, the world that we live in is characterized by massive immigration of individuals to the various part of the world for one reason or the other.

As a result, it is important to learn the diverse cultural variations so as to fit communication-wise wherever an individual goes. For instance, the international students who go to school in the American institutions of learning have no option but to comprehensively learn the American culture. Similarly, since the American students will have to socialize with the international students it necessitates that they also learn other students culture to avoid intercultural communication breakdown in the schooling environment and college relationship between them and the internationals. The same case applies to the rest of the world especially in this era of globalization where intercultural communication has been greatly necessitated.

Intercultural communication breakdown

Measures to curb intercultural communication breakdown

Just like personality varies from one person to the other, culture varies from one society to another. Consequently, the cultural variations among the groups across the world populations are inherently characteristic to the group (Liddicoat, 1997:73). According to the latter, the Culture of a society or group of people is so entrenched to it that even the modern globalization has not succeeded in completely alleviating the cultural differentials. Just like personality, culture can be said to be innate and the differences are thus inevitable.

The unavoidable differences in cultural backgrounds therefore dictate cross-cultural communication barriers and resulting breakdown. The latter can only be prevented or lessened through artificial cross-cultural learning or natural enculturation of individuals in the early stages of human development. Otherwise, it is very challenging to completely change an individual’s own culture. In the same line, cross cultural communication breakdown can be avoided by actively involving all the participants’ in the communication process in intercultural learning (Crozet, C. & Liddicoat, 1999:227).

Intercultural learning or teaching is a process where individuals from different cultural backgrounds are taught or initiates efforts to actually learn variety of culture and cultural practices with an objective of enhancing intercultural socialization (Liddicoat, 1997:76). In order to succeed in intercultural learning, it is fundamental for the process to be preceded by intercultural language learning, a process that involves individual learning an extra language or the language of another culture.

However, intercultural language learning must not be mistaken for intercultural learning since language is only a small but important component of cultural learning. When an individual is either bilingual or multilingual it becomes easier for him or her to learn the other parties cultural aspects since language forms the basis of communication and learning efficiency and effectiveness (Kramcsh, 1993:22). While intercultural language learning is a fundamental measure of curbing intercultural communication breakdown, It is a necessary but not sufficient to attain intercultural communication effectiveness (Crozet, & Liddicoat, 1999:27).

According to the latter While embarking on intercultural language learning therefore, the learning parties must be passionate and committed to combine the language learning with all the cultural aspects related to the language so as to be comprehensive in avoiding future intercultural communication breakdown. To the intercultural language learners their strategy must shift from the communicative language learning to intercultural learning if communication breakdown between varying cultures is to be successfully done away with.

According to Fantini (1997), intercultural language teaching fundamental aim is to enable individuals to effectively learn about other people culture, enable individuals to effectively perform a comprehensive comparison between their own culture and the rest cultures in the world and also explore other culture with an aim to fully understand what the varying culture are all about.

The latter asserts that intercultural language should not be conducted only for intercultural literal communication purposes, but should involve active and passionate comprehensive learning of culture associated with the language in question. According to Crozet and Liddicoat (1999), intercultural learning is not autonomously acquired but active learning must be involved for the learners to become fully conversant with the culture they are interested in.

According to Donna (2002) intercultural communication breakdown can only be effectively avoided through effective acquisition and mediation of intercultural communication skills by all the parties involved in the communication process. However, the later maintains that achieving this objective is not an autonomous process but requires individuals to fully understand and appreciate culture and engage in passionately learning of all aspects that it encompass.

To learn culture, the intercultural learners must first understand and appreciate culture as a dynamic and an aspect of life that is continuously changing, as a multifaceted entity and whose complexity must be depicted throughout the learning process and the intercultural learning approaches should encompass systems are effective at equipping learners with a wide range of cultural practice and meaning irrespective of the status that the learner is in (Donna, 2002:110).

Cultural learning has to be comprehensive to include the learning of prehistoric patterns with symbolic value to the society irrespective of whether they are still relevant or not. These include proverbs, expressions and colloquialisms utilized in every day speech all of which forms the archaic culture. Also, it should incorporate learning about the society current practices and ways of behavior or current culture that is still effective in the society, for instance, the French talking styles around the meal table or table manners refers to the residual culture and the society’s new ways of life or emerging behaviors so as to be up to date with the culture, for instance, the society’s new forms of expressions or modes of speech (emergent culture) (Crozet, & Liddicoat, 1999:117).

In the modern society, characterized with apparent globalization and advancement in technology (development of internet) the world has been reduced into a relatively small village, where individuals can access information from all over the world with a click of a button. Consequently, intercultural relations, intercultural language learning and intercultural learning have been made absolutely easier. For instance, an individual in south America can easily obtain information concerning the Asian culture and vice versa. Similarly, an individual in Africa will obtain culture information about the Europeans at ease from the internet. As a result intercultural communication breakdown is now easy to do away with, through intercultural learning and communication which is fairly easy in the modern world.


With the world continously becoming globalized every other day, social and formal interactions between individuals from across the multicultural globe are increasingly becoming inevitable and important. Furthermore, international trade ties and tourism greatly relies on intercultural relationships which are themselves reliant on smooth intercultural communicative relationships and efficiency. The existence of barriers and the resultant breakdown in these communication links therefore will have adverse effects of such relationship, noting that they form a very important part of both social and economic aspects of life in the modern world.

There is a saying of Korzybski, “The map is not the territory” (1948); this phrase can be explained through the fact that intercultural communication does not mean the communication process itself; it is the way people from different cultures understand each others’ values, standards, norms, regulations and beliefs expressing respects to them for the purpose of communication breakage avoid. (Scollon, 2001:268)


Beal, C. 1992, ‘Did you have a good week-end? Or why there is no such thing as a simple question in cross-cultural encounters’, Australian Review of Applied Linguistics, vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 23-52.

Crozet, C. & Liddicoat, A.J. 1999, ‘The Challenge of Intercultural Language Teaching: Engaging with Culture in the Classroom’, in Striving for the Third Place: Intercultural Competence through Language Education, Ed Bianco, A.J. Liddicoat & C. Crozet, Language Australia, Melbourne, pp. 113-125.

Donna H, 2002 Intercultural Communication: A Teaching And Learning Framework: Nottingham Trent University.

Fantini, A.J (Ed) New Ways in Teaching Culture, TESOI, USA.

Johnson, (1997) Managing a diverse workplace: understanding different cultural values and styles -HF5549.5.M5 M35 1.

Kramsch, C. 1993, ‘Teaching Language Along The Cultural Fault line’, In Context And Culture In Language teaching, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 205-232.

Kramcsh C (1993) Context and Culture in Language Teaching, OUP.

Liddicoat, A. J 1997, Everyday Speech As Culture, Implication For Language Teaching Inc Anthony, A.J Liddicoat And C. Crozet(eds) ARAL series S NO 14 (55-75).

Sarbaugh, L. E. 1988, Intercultural Communication. Transaction Publishers, 150pp.

Scollon, R. 2001, Intercultural Communication: a discourse approach. Wiley-Blackwell. 316pp.

Wardhaugh, R. 1998, ‘Ethnography and ethno-methodology’, in An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 237-254.