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Hurdles to Cross Cultural Business Communication
Neil Payne

International businesses are facing new challenges to their internal communication structures due to major reforms brought about through internationalization, downsizing, mergers, acquisitions and joint ventures.

Lack of investment in cross cultural training and language tuition often leads to deficient internal cohesion. The loss of clients/customers, poor staff retention, lack of competitive edge, internal conflicts/power struggles, poor working relations, misunderstandings, stress, poor productivity and lack of co-operation are all by-products of poor cross cultural communication.

Cross cultural communications consultants work with international companies to minimise the above consequences of poor cross cultural awareness. Through such cooperation, consultancies like Kwintessential have recognised common hurdles to effective cross cultural communication within companies.

Here we outline a few examples of these obstacles to cross cultural co-operation:

Lack of Communication

It may seem obvious to state that non-communication is probably the biggest contributor to poor communication. Yet it continues to prove itself as the major problem within most companies.

Lack of communication with staff is not solely due to lack of spoken dialogue. Rather it relates to access to information.

For example, not giving feedback (negative or positive), informing staff of decisions and actions that will affect their roles or failure to properly communicate expectations are all ways in which information can be withheld from staff. This will eventually result in an alienated staff base that feels divided from management and superiors.

If managers are too selective in providing information, this can cause suspicion and jealousy among staff and will eventually result in internal strife instead of cohesion.

A management which does not and will not communicate and interact physically with staff demonstrates a lack of interest, trust and respect.

In the West it is often the case that communication lines are vertical. Staff report up to managers and managers up to senior levels and so on. Ideally lines of communication should run both ways. Those with a subordinate place in the communication process tend to feel estranged, indifferent and possibly even belligerent.

Lack of communication in all its forms is unhealthy. Companies and managers must be aware of how, what and to whom they are communicating.


Communication difficulties through language come in two forms:

Use of inappropriate language

Language carries with it subliminal meanings and messages transmitted through vocabulary, stress and tone. The wrong use of words or emotions hidden behind phrases can send messages that affect staff self-perception, confidence and attitude. Critical language causes poor interpersonal relationships and low self-confidence whereas supportive language and tones has the opposite effect.

Foreign Languages

These days, offices may have native speakers of over 50 languages all under one roof. It is important that the main language of the office is established, whether it be English, French or Spanish. Once this is constituted all employees should only converse in the main language. This avoids exclusion of staff who can not understand other languages. In addition, a company should ensure that all its employees are fully conversant in the main language. Language tuition should be seen as a necessity not a luxury.


International businesses with a highly diverse workforce in terms of nationality and cultural background face challenges from the differences in language, values, belief systems, business ethics, business practices, behaviour, etiquette and expectations.

Cross cultural differences can negatively impact a business in a variety of ways, whether in team cohesion or in staff productivity. As we have seen above, different methods of communication are just one area in which cross cultural differences are manifested.

In such multicultural companies, objective help may be needed through a cross cultural consultant who will show teams and individuals how to manage communication and work together more cohesively and productively.

Company Culture

Company culture pertains to the internal culture of a company in terms of how it is managed. For example, does the company view its different departments such as sales, production, administration and HR as closed or open systems? A closed system is one in which a total lack of synergy exists between a sales and production department due to the structure and communication lines between the two. A consequence of such compartmentalization is that managers of departments have a tendency to become territorial. It is vital that team work, team building and team spirit are encouraged in order to create open systems.

Such measures are especially valid in joint ventures and mergers whereby co-operation between two or more companies requires their total commitment to an open system.

Understandably many companies are primarily focused on the financial and strategic side of company operations. International businesses are now realising that many of their business problems have roots in man-management and communication.

In summary, we can conclude that the biggest hurdle to effective cross cultural communication is a reluctance to invest in the expertise and resources needed to overcome the problems as outlined above. Cross cultural hurdles are easily negotiable with some objective and well-qualified assistance.

© Kwintessential Ltd

Neil Payne is Director of Cross Cultural Communications consultancy

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