Cultural Barriers in the Workplace

In our global economy, cultural barriers in the workplace become more common every day. The insight to recognize these problems and the wisdom to deal with them in affirmative, productive ways is essential for HR professionals, management staff, and your entire workforce. Cultural barriers are both verbal and nonverbal.

Verbal Barriers:
• When worker come from different regions of the country, there are different nuances and pronunciations of the same words. There are also various communication styles. These simple differences can cause misunderstandings and even hinder projects if they aren’t understood.
• While issues can arise from simple being in a different region, they pale in comparison to the difficulties that can arise when professionals come from different countries. Not only is the primary language different, they function on a diverse “operating systems”. Specific idioms and terms can have very different meanings.
• Acceptable ways to express verbal communication also varies. For example, while women in the United States are given leadership roles and expected to speak assertively, in other countries, this is totally unacceptable behavior. Furthermore, while we like feedback, feedback feedback, some cultures consider direct feedback rude – they prefer a more subtle and circuitous approach.

Nonverbal Barriers
Roles and status, personal space, and body language are other significant issues in cultural barrier communications.
• The roles and status of men vs. women is very different from country to country. For example, a male professional who originates from a country where it is considered rude for a woman to look at a man when listening to him is going to have difficulty adapting to a female boss. It doesn’t mean he can’t, but understanding the background is helpful.
• Acceptable personal space is also very diverse. For example, American workers stand approximately five feet apart when conversing with another. German and Japanese workers often require more distance while Arabs and Latinos normally stand much closer.
• Body language can create additional cultural barriers. Eye contact is a very important distinction among cultures. Westerners often insist on eye contact as a measure of attention and honesty, while it is often considered disrespectful in some Asian and Latin cultures.
• Personal relationship vs. business is another key difference. Americans discuss business as soon as introductions are finished – that’s the focus of the meeting. In Latin America and other cultures, any discussion of business taboo until sufficient conversation is spent on family, leisure activities, etc.

Breaking through the Barriers
The attitudes and actions of company management set the direction and pace for breaking through the barriers and creating a productive business culture.

Begin with an understanding of basic good manners.
• Speak clearly and distinctly, avoiding slurring your words.
• Slow down.
• Do not raise your voice. Speaking louder doesn’t make it clearer.
• Avoid idioms, jargon, slang, etc. that is part of your region. Instead, focus on using specific, and often more simple, words.
• Break complex explanations into steps.
• Be concrete, and concise – avoid wordy explanations.
• Check often to see if the receiver is understanding.
• Be supportive of the employee or coworker who is the minority.

Include translation
• Translate all pertinent documents.
• Use interpreters.
• Offer language classes – encourage English-speaking employees to learn some basic words in the second language.
• Never equate a language struggle with ineptitude.

Use visual methods of communication – especially in training.
• Be willing to repeat and retrain until the employee fully understands the assignment/task.
• Ask them to demonstrate his/her understanding.

Be willing to learn about the various cultures represented in the company
• Ask questions about their culture – show the respect of being interested in and willing to learn about their background.
• Adjust personal ideas of what show respect in recognition of theirs.
• When you are able, accommodate cultural differences.

Occasionally cultural differences and language barriers are used as a reason for second-rate performance, but most of the time barriers are genuine. When management takes a proactive approach to breaking through the barriers, employees tend to follow their example, creating a happy, positive, and productive company culture. Contact Springborn Staffing. We understand cultural barriers, and will help you find the right candidates for your open positions in Bangor and Portland, Maine.

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