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There is no doubt that inter-cultural
communication is challenging and one of the main reasons for this is that few
people are aware of their own cultural biases because cultural imprinting is
basically implemented from birth. As workforces worldwide are becoming more
diverse, ethnically and culturally, it needs to be stressed that international
communication is influenced by cultural differences (Martineau & Feller, 2000). Some
theorists have even attempted to group cultural patterns based on geographical
similarities, however, in 1989 Edward Hall came up with a low-context,
high–context approach. High-context cultures (Mediterranean, Central European,
Latin American, African, Arab and Asian) are said to leave much of the message
communicated unspecified, to be understood through context and
between-the-lines interpretation of what is actually said. In contrast to
low-context cultures (most Germanic and English-speaking countries) who expect
messages to be explicit, straight to the point and specific. For example,
silence in most English speaking countries is considered as a pause, which
reflects a blank in communication and as the silence prolongs, the conversation
can become uneasy and awkward. In Asia, however, silence is valued rather
feared. A popular Korean saying states that “silence guarantees you a second
place” which basically means silence is preferred to rather than improper words
(Gudykunst, 2003).

Leading on from this, non-verbal
behaviour plays a crucial role in communication between humans, but its major
limitation is that it can often lead to misunderstandings between people from
different cultures, even if they speak the same language fluently. When
traveling to a foreign country we often mistakenly assume that we can overcome
language barriers by using simple hand gestures to communicate with one and
other. However, as Archer (1997) indicated, “just as there is no reason to
expect an English word to be recognised internationally, there is no reason to
expect an American hand gesture to be recognised” (Neuliep, 2017). Among the
most popular types of non-verbal behaviours that are particularly difficult to
adapt to include interpersonal distance, use of touch, amount of eye contact
and gestures. For example, in western cultures people see direct eye to eye
contact as positive and engaging where as in places like Japan (Asia), Africa,
Latin American and the Caribbean avoid eye contact to show a sign of respect to
each other. Additionally, in the west handshakes are common between genders,
however, Islamic cultures generally don’t approve of any touching between
genders at all (Gudykunst, 2003). 

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Ineffective inter-cultural
communication can result in ethnocentrism, which can be defined as when one
sees his or her culture as superior, and the standard by which other cultures
should be judged (Neuliep, 2017). Similar to stereotyping, it is a natural
cognitive process but can lead to prejudice and discrimination. Ethnocentrism
negatively influences interpersonal perceptions of credibility and managerial
effectiveness which can prove to cause severe implications in the workplace.

From my own personal experiences, I
have encountered many of the issues raised in this essay in relation to
inter-cultural communication, with the main one being through German exchange
students coming to Belfast from the Ludwig Wilhelm Gymnasium in Rastatt
(South-West Germany). Although I did not take part in the exchange project
myself, which meant I was unable to go on the return trip to visit their school
in Germany, I played a key role in welcoming them, which was when I first
realised how their culture differed to ours. Firstly, it was difficult to
communicate effectively with the German students as they spoke a different
first language from me, and therefore, they did not understand our dialect of
English as well as I had expected and struggled to come to terms with the colloquial
language we used. Becoming familiar with the different cultural and social uses
of language may enhance both a person’s communicative competence and their
mutual intelligibility across cultures (Jones, 2013). Apart from language
barriers, their non-verbal behaviours also differed from ours. For example, in
Germany they use their little finger to point, whereas we use our index finger.
I personally found this unusual and at the time, I researched differences in
cultural gestures and discovered that in Japan they point with their whole hand,
as most Asians consider pointing with their index finger to be rude. As the
week went on I got to talk more with some of the students and they began to
educate me on how their school life differed from ours and general culture
norms which I was previously unaware of. I believe exchange programmes are very
beneficial to help improve inter-cultural communication as they propel students
towards acceptance and understanding of an array of different cultural
perspectives which can possibly lead to a reduction in ethnocentrism
and stereotyping. According to Malmberg (2003), the understanding of foreign
cultures is a necessity for young people, and an exchange like the one I have
mentioned is a great way not only to achieve that understanding but also to get
to know oneself better (Cooke & Schwartz, 2008).

In conclusion there are many
issues that can arise during inter-cultural communication which can act as a
barrier when trying to interact with someone from a different country. This
essay covers some of those limitations, with back up from research, and include
things like inability to understand different cultures, language barriers,
non-verbal differences and ethnocentrism. The most effective way to overcome
inter-cultural communication is to ensure that you make a good first impression
with no breakdown of communication or misunderstanding. The best way to achieve
this, according to Scollon (2012), is by demonstrating your willingness to meet others at least halfway by
learning a few phrases in their language. This is a very simple method to adopt
sensitivity towards another person’s culture and from my past experiences with
the German exchange students, I believe this would’ve been a perfect way for me
to extend my welcome to them.

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