Barriers to Intercultural Communication
By Sarah Abdelbary
The global movements of populations causes differences to emerge within cultures, which intensifies the challenges expatriates face to achieve effective intercultural communication. Moreover, owing to the complex nature of the communication involving people from different cultural backgrounds and the clashes of thoughts and behaviors between expatriates and nationals, expatriates must have knowledge about the general value dimensions of the new culture, as well as positive attitudes and intercultural communication skills to be able to cope with all kinds of issues and misunderstandings. Therefore, this paper investigates three potential cultural barriers—languages, values, and traditions— which might arise in the face of intercultural communication within the UAE, and offers solutions to how they can be overcome. United Arab Emirates, an Islamic, moderately collective country that embraces cultural diversity will be used in this research paper as the host culture to new expatriates.
Although globalization makes intercultural communication inevitable, each culture still enjoys various characteristics that distinguish it from one another; some of these characteristics can obstruct the process of effective intercultural communication. This paper discusses three of these characteristics—languages, values, and traditions—in relation to three individuals who have moved to the UAE for different reasons.
Setting/Participants and Relationship to Writer
For this research paper, a decision to interview three individuals from three different cultural backgrounds was taken to enhance the theme of diversity, and to clearly highlight and capture the cultural differences among these cultures in comparison to the Emirati cultural environment. However, pseudonyms will be used instead of the participants’ real names to protect their identities. Therefore, participant A will be referred to as Reem, participant B as Maria, and participant C as Lynn.
First, Reem is a 34 year-old American Muslim who was born and raised in the USA as a Christian and converted to Islam after getting married. She changed her first name to an Arabic name after she married a Palestinian Muslim whom she met in the USA at the age of 20. After marriage, she lived in the USA for seven years and later moved to Damam, Saudi Arabia, where her husband’s job was relocated. Reem and her family spent four years in Damam before finally moving to the United Arab Emirates, Sharjah they have been living for eight years. Reem is currently completing her final requirements pursuing a bachelor degree in English literature at the American University of Sharjah.
Maria, a 22-year-old Mexican, came from Texas to AUS in September 2013 as an exchange student in the American University of Sharjah. Maria completed high school and her college freshman year in Mexico before she moved to Texas to pursue an English curricular education in finance. “I moved to Texas because there is no way to study good English in Mexico, regardless of how many classes you would take,” she says. Maria stated that she moved to Texas in order to take all of her courses in English, and be able to understand and speak English fluently. Moreover, she asserted that the social situation in Mexico was not very stable because of ongoing crime; hence, she favored Texas over staying in Mexico. After spending almost four years in Texas, Maria decided to join the exchange student program at her university, the University of Texas. Maria explains, “Travelling is a passion of mine, and I wanted to visit a new country with a culture that is 360 degrees different from mine. Luckily enough, I had the opportunity of coming to the UAE.”
Finally, Lynn is a 34-year-old Christian who was born and raised in the Philippines. After graduating from high school, Lynn explored her religious vocation at the Hospitaler Sisters of Mercy in Italy, which offers an international congregation of novitiates. After finishing her nursing studies, Lynn studied clinical pastoral education. However, she left the religious life inside the convent in the year of 2008 for financial reasons, believing it is not God’s will for her to complete this path. Therefore, she decided to pursue a job that can fund both her family and herself, which brought her to the United Arab Emirates.
Reasons for Selection
All three interviewees have shown their possession of the basic information and the clear ideas needed for the topic of this research paper. Clarify. Moreover, they had the commitment to attend the interview sessions, and the capability of describing their experiences in detail.
To begin with, Reem was chosen because she is well acquainted with all three cultures: North American, Saudi Arabian, and Emirati. In terms of North American culture, her roots come from American society. Moreover, she was a non-Muslim for half her life and none of her family knew Islam. In fact, she stated, “I had not heard the word Muslim before I converted.” Moreover, she experienced a huge shift in regard to the cultural environment when she moved to Saudi Arabia. Similarly, the UAE enjoys a different cultural atmosphere that is drastically less conservative than Saudi Arabia. Keeping all these reasons in mind, settling in different cultural environments made Reem well aware of the differences from one culture to another.
The reason behind selecting Maria for this project stems from the researcher’s desire to explore a new culture that is drastically different from the Emirati cultural environment. Maria has experienced living in three different cultures: Mexican, North American, and Emirati. Maria was born and raised in Mexico and is highly familiar with its culture. Moreover, she moved to Texas at an age that permitted her to observe and understand all the existing cultural differences. All these factors made Maria an interesting choice.
Lynn on the other hand was selected on the basis of both her cultural and religious experiences. Unlike the first two participants, Lynn is working as a housekeeper and has been living with a Muslim family for more than three years which practices different cultures and beliefs. Through this period of time, Lynn has had the ability to explore a new culture and highlight the differences from up-close.
Venue for conducting interview
The place where an interview is held can play a vital role on the outcomes of that interview (Pickard & Childs, 2013). Therefore, in order to ensure that the interview process went as smoothly and as effectively as possible, all interview sessions were held in social and relaxing spaces. For instance, Reem was interviewed in the language building on campus over donuts as a gesture of appreciation. Similarly, Maria was interviewed at Starbucks café on campus over coffee. As for Lynn, she was interviewed at her home in a quiet room.
Time and Date
Every interview was held on a different day and timing based on what was convenient to the interviewees to fit their busy schedules. Reem, the first participant, was interviewed on Wednesday, November 28, 2013 from 1:30 p.m. until 2:00 p.m. Maria was second on Thursday, November 29, 2013 from 2:00 pm to 2:30. Lynn was my last interviewee. It was easier to adjust a time to interview her and that was on December 3, 2013 at 4:00 pm until 4:30 pm.
Differences between cultures are much greater than differences between individuals and groups (Markman et al., 2005). Cultures differ in values, traditions, religions, beliefs, and many other factors that have an effect on the human behavior. For instance, both culture and religion have an effect on the way individuals dress. In fact, clothing and physical appearance is one aspect of non-verbal communication. Reem, for instance, who converted to Islam, had to change the way she dressed in order to adjust to what is acceptable to her religion. She said:
I started wearing the hijab. My skirt got longer and longer. I used to wear head scarfs with short sleeves trying to make it fit. Soon after that I adjusted to wearing the abaya.
While individuals can accept change and adjust accordingly, societies on the other hand may take longer periods of time to accept such changes. In talking about her adoption of the abaya in the USA, Reem added:
My family was very supportive but curious why I would do such a thing nonetheless. The society, on the other hand I had some troubles with; I have had people say some comments, but I have never had anybody ask me directly why I dress like that. I have had children ask their parents why she dresses like that and then they said: “Oh, that’s just her religion” and one of them actually said: “I don’t know, maybe she is cold.” I had some comments and some people that are rude and inconsiderate, but it did not really bother me.
The change in physical appearance that Reem went through was gradual, not instant. Despite her family’s support, reactions to this change in clothing may differ among the society she lives in as it reflects heritage, religion, or culture they are not familiar with.
Clothing and Physical Appearance
Despite the fact that the cultural curiosity individual Americans had towards Reem’s outfit was not expressed pleasantly, Reem dealt with this cultural difference very wisely and effectively. She acknowledges:
I actually made adjustments to make it easier on myself. For example, when I first started to wear Abaya in America I did not wear black, and I still do not because they find it very threatening, and think of me as a witch or something. They tend to associate these kinds of things with it. So I used to wear colors, and as soon as I moved to Saudi Arabia I started wearing black, and ditched all the colors.
Clothing is believed to be one of the factors that represents and portrays a culture (Jandt, 2013). Physical appearance is heavily influenced by beliefs, climate, and the region the culture is located within (Cultural fashions, 2004). This was evident in what Maria said about choice of clothes in the USA. She explained:
People in the US came to class in their pajamas and I found that bizarre. They do not care whether they go in pajamas, flip-flops or shorts. I would never do that because in Mexico because if someone goes to school in pajamas, everyone would think it is a joke. They tend to wear shorts and show a lot of skin, but that is not the case in Mexico. You do see people wearing shorts but it is not accepted as much as it is in the US. I did not fully adapt to their code of dressing.
During the course of the interview, Maria asserted how UAE culture is more dramatically different than US culture, while Mexico stands in the middle. She says:
In the UAE, I would never show my shoulders or my knees because I need to respect the culture. I also had never seen girls wearing shorts on campus, at all. I have been to Dubai and I have seen foreigners wearing shorts and sleeveless shirts, but I have not seen any of this in Sharjah.
In addition, Maria confessed to falling for stereotyping before coming to the UAE; she had the assumption that she would join a society where all women were covered, and would be forced to accommodate the dress code as well. Similarly, Lynn had an assumption that all Arabs are a source of danger. She said:
We have this wrong assumption that Arab countries in general are a source of danger. However, after I came here, I realized that we have this wrong image drawn of all of the Arabs. Dealing with the family members I work for, I realized that goodness exists within their hearts.
However, this stereotype vanished once Maria saw the diversity and the freedom of appearance AUS embraces. Similarly, Lynn indicated that she was astonished once she came to the UAE to see how drastically different the conservatism of the UAE differs from the overly free Philippines. She asserts:
I appreciate the way people dress up here because it maintains conservativeness and dismisses temptations or sins.
Physical appearances communicate different messages (Jandt, 2013). Clothing can reflect identity, religion or culture; clothing can also be adjusted to fit in a society that is different from one’s own native culture. Moreover, assumptions are usually associated with specific outfits resulting with stereotyping.
One of the main barriers to intercultural communication is language. According to Jandt (2013), language is the core of national identity, and our choice of language is often determined by culture rather than individual preference. All three interviewees expressed their struggle with language when placed among a new culture. Reem reported:
The language was a big obstacle for me and it still is when I go back to visit my husband’s family in Saudi Arabia because they are Palestinians and none of them speak English.
Similarly, Maria who had no problem communicating in Texas using either Spanish or English, had difficulties socializing and communicating with students at AUS. She depicted her struggle in the following situation:
I have been part of projects with other students who can speak Arabic and despite their awareness of my poor Arabic skills, they tended to communicate using Arabic and then translate what they said to me in English. It made me feel left out.
Likewise, Lynn had some struggles understanding and communicating with her employer due to the poor English skills on both sides. However, each of these interviewees had a different strategy to overcome this difficulty. Reem for instance said how she tried to learn Arabic in Saudi Arabia:
I am the one who made all the efforts to fit in. I am the one who has to conceive and try my best to speak Arabic when I go there. I learned a lot through the four years I spent there. I learned Arabic just from listening to kids, and from my husband.
Maria on the other hand implemented a different strategy to overcome this language barrier, she learned more about the Emirati cultural environment, and therefore engaged more effectively with other students. Maria is currently taking two courses in basic Arabic in order to be able to read, write, and speak Arabic more fluently.
Similarly, Lynn indicates that although the agency she came to the UAE through offered her access to Arabic classes, they were not enough to enable her to either speak or understand Arabic. Therefore, she took the initiative of buying an Arabic-English dictionary in order to learn the meanings of words she often hears among the family members.
Despite all the differences cultures seem to have from one another, similarities and commonalities can still be found. Both Maria and Lynn were surprised to recognize a common characteristic between their own cultures and the individuals of the UAE culture, and that is hospitality. Lynn indicated:
One of the similarities I found between my culture and the UAE is hospitality. Sometimes, even when we have nothing to offer, we are willing to offer anything as simple as a glass of water just to show hospitality. Similarly here in the UAE, people always have something to offer which marks their generosity.
When similarities are found between cultures, adaptation becomes easier for expatriates, making intercultural communication more effective. In addition, similarities can be found in values, traditions, languages, or religion.
The interviews conducted for this research paper emphasized that both similarities and differences exist between cultures. Therefore, it is crucial for one to examine these differences on a general level. Otherwise, these differences will act as barriers to intercultural communication where one is most likely to suffer and limit the effectiveness of such communication. In the case of this research paper, the interviewees faced barriers such as stereotyping, assuming similarities over differences and language difficulties.
Almost all humans tend to stereotype. According to Jandt, stereotyping can be defined as, “[N]egative or positive judgments made about individuals based on any observable or believed group membership” (2013, p.85). In other words, people isolate and organize specific information and experiences to form meanings and assumptions which prevent them from “seeing” the individual. Hinner (2010) acknowledges that stereotypes can highlight differences in that they point out all that is different between “us” and “them.” This is what is also known as ”othering”; to assume one’s own culture is superior over other cultures. Maria clearly exhibited othering when she mentioned how students in the US may sometimes come to class in their pajamas. Lynn on the other hand gave an example of stereotyping when she mentioned that she believed all Arabs are a source of danger and terrorism. According to Scollon & Scollon, "Stereotypes limit our understanding of human behavior and of intercultural discourse because they limit our view of human activity to just one or two salient dimensions and consider those to be the whole picture" 2001, p. 272). Sassenberg & Moskowitz (2005) both suggest that stereotyping can be overcome through priming creativity which can be achieved through avoiding conventional and typical association with one’s stereotypes.
Stereotypes tend to exaggerate the differences between one culture and another, leading to self-fulfilling prophecy. One of the leading sources to stereotyping is intellectual laziness. People depend on assumptions instead of exploring new cultures on their own. As a result, stereotyping can lead to inequality of life chances and can have an effect on all ages.
Assuming Similarities over Differences
When one assumes similarities over differences between cultures, it is easy to miss out on important differences (Jandt, 2013). Cultural differences are significant because they can affect the effectiveness of one’s communication with nationals from other cultures. Unfortunately, many people tend to discover this the hard way. Reem for instance wanted to take a kind of sweet to a funeral she was attending in the UAE assuming that Arab cultures have the same traditions as North American culture. Similarly, Maria assumed that the North American culture had the same eating habits as people in Mexico. People in North America eat most of their meals outside while people in Mexico eat most of their meals at home. Moreover, sometime, if a culture does not live up to the expectations of an expatriate, communication can become extremely difficult; it can take a long period of time to change these expectations, and engage with the culture subsequently. Noorderhaven (1999) suggests that a distinction between stereotyping and assuming that cultural differences are irrelevant has to be made. In other words, people have to navigate between over-generalizing and the urge to avoid stereotyping.
Many differences arise between cultures due to language variations. Language acts as a concrete base for successful communication. Jandt defines language as “[a] set of symbols shared by a community to communicate meaning and experience” (2013, p. 133). All three interviewees expressed their struggle with language and described it as a barrier standing in the way of effective communication. Reem for instance had and still is facing some difficulties interacting with her Palestinian in-laws, while Maria is having trouble communicating with her classmates. Lynn on the other hand viewed language as a difficulty because of the poor language skills on both her and her employers’ side. Peltokorpi and Clausen (2011) assert that “shared foreign language does not guarantee error-free understanding, because cultural values manifested through language usage and communication styles act as barriers to perceiving, analyzing and decoding messages effectively” (p. 6). Fortunately, all three interviewees handled the language difficulty effectively. Reem, Maria, and Lynn took the initiative of learning the language of the culture they were placed in, which is Arabic, in their own ways. Reem tried to pick up the language through listening to children. Maria on the other hand depended on Arabic courses the university offers for non-native speakers. As for Lynn, she took an independent action where she bought an Arabic-English dictionary to understand the meanings of words she frequently hears. Although language can create a gap between expatriates and locals, this gap can be filled through hard work and an urge to engage in successful interactions.
Emotions are the core of humans (Bradberry & Greaves, 2005); emotional intelligence may be another solution to enhance intercultural communication. The Cambridge dictionary defines emotional intelligence as “the ability to understand the way people feel and react and to use this skill to make good judgments and to avoid or solve problems” (Emotional Intelligence, 2013). According to Bradberry & Greaves (2005), emotional intelligence consists of four skills, self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Self-awareness is an individual’s awareness of his/her own emotions, and self-management is the ability to use this awareness of emotions to behave positively. Social awareness on the other hand is an individual’s awareness of people’s emotions, and relationship management is the outcome of the first three skills. Acquiring these skills can enable the person to understand his/her own emotions and recognize when it is suitable to communicate with others, and how to communicate effectively with people from other cultures. For instance, through emotional intelligence, one will be able to embrace cultural differences and avoid assuming that his/her culture is superior over other cultures.
In conclusion, the experiences of all three interviewees emphasize the notion that expatriates must have knowledge about the general value dimensions of different cultures in order to engage effectively in intercultural communication. Moreover, although globalization eased the way for cultures to connect; similarities and differences continue to exist. Therefore, effective intercultural communication depends on the expatriates’ communication abilities, their knowledge of cultural dimensions, and most importantly, the ability to embrace differences between cultures like language and physical appearance. All these characteristics can be enhanced through cultural tolerance.
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Sarah Abdelbary is a senior at the American University of Sharjah majoring in English Language and minoring in Translation. She is originally Palestinian but was born in the United States and has lived her whole life in the United Arab Emirates. She would like to pursue a career rather than a higher degree for the time being. She is looking to expand her experience in translation; however, as she would not like to restrict herself to one field she is also interested in media or marketing. She considers herself a hardcore adrenaline junkie.