Cultural Barriers to Communication

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Nigerian communication problem is a cultural thing, and in order to eliminate some of the problems we face in Nigeria, we have to eliminate cultural barriers to effective communication.  Some of the several barriers to effective communication are gender barriers, language barriers, race barriers, listening barriers, expectation barriers, e.t.c. 

In this article, I will focus on one or two barriers in cultural communication and, then point out some key factors that I think may enhance our communication level.   Some times we don't say what we are thinking, and when we do, what we are saying is not what we are conveying, that is, our body communicate something entirely different, thereby making it difficult for others to understand us.

 First, what is a cultural barrier, or how can we break cultural barriers to effective communication in Nigeria?  I think it is through listening, knowledge and understanding of our selves and others. 

According to some definition, cultural barriers can be seen as events, or occurrence based on culture that creates communication problem between individuals, or small group from different cultural backgrounds. Breaking Nigerian cultural communication barriers involves moving beyond our deeply held negative stereotypes, making cross- cultural connections, and understanding our differences.

In referencing a young woman whose article I read, a Professor at University of Colorado, by the name Ting-Toomey, there are three ways in which culture interferes with effective cross-cultural understanding. First is what she calls "cognitive constraints," these, according to Stella, are the frames of reference or worldviews that provide a backdrop that all new information is compared to or inserted into.

 One common framing problem is the assumption that a conflict is caused by a conflict of interests, when it is really a conflict of fundamental needs, or a conflict of interest and needs together.   Interests are tangible things, such as land, money, or jobs that can be traded and compromised, while needs are intangible things, such as identity, security, and recognition, that cannot be traded.

The Second thought system according to Stella, are "behavior constraints," each culture, invariably, Nigerian culture, has its' own rules about proper behavior, which affect our verbal and nonverbal communication. Whether one looks the other person in the eye or not; or talks around an issues, to some, these are rules of politeness which differ from culture to culture.  Cultural barriers could mean so many things to different people, depending on a person's background, or mode of references.

In Nigeria we have hundreds of different cultures, therefore, effective communication is especially challenging, given that Nigerians speak different languages. And when languages are different, and translation has to be used to communicate, the potential for misunderstanding is increased. The same words can mean different things to people from different cultures, even when they speak the ‘same' language.  On the positive side, culture is the mechanism that provides ways in which we interpret our reality.

Stella Ting-Toomey's third thinking factor is "emotional constraints." Different cultures regulate the display of emotion differently. Some part of Nigerian culture, for example, expresses their thinking aggressively and quiet often openly. A well know fact about some Nigerian culture, is the emotional expression. The writer of this article infers that in her culture, emotional expression is done so loudly that an outside seeing this for the first time, may think those engaged are angry and violent in their outburst, whereas, what they are doing is expressing their thoughts.

Some cultures gets very emotional when they are debating an issue, infers Ting-Toomey. Some yell, cry, or exhibit anger, frustration, or fear and other feelings openly. Other cultures try to keep their emotions hidden, exhibiting or sharing only the "rational" or factual problems of the situation.

All of these, according Stella tend to lead to communication barriers or problems. If the people involved are not aware of the potential for such problems, they may likely fall victims of misconceptions. This illustration brings to mind, the discussion the writer of this article had with a Nigerian, who is doing his residence at the Cook County Hospital in Chicago.

Like Stella Ting-Toomey, Dr. Victor Mensah, inferred on the fact that when meaning of cultural beliefs are not shared amongst small or large groups, there is a tendency for conflict or misunderstanding to the underlying meanings of what is being said or expressed.  Who we are and how we see the world, are substantially shaped by perceptions of our environment, and ethnic identities. In honoring and respecting our differences, we need to respect the identities others claim for themselves if we want to develop a relationship with them.

In Chinese culture, for example, Dr. Victor Mensah, added that hand shakes amongst men and women are not a common gesture, unlike in the United States where hand sake between a man and woman is not a problem. In a culture such as the American culture, where a woman refuses to shake hands with a man, such refusal may be perceived as rudeness, a slighting on the part of the American woman. Where as, if a Chinese man that shakes hand with a woman, especially while her husband is present, he is perceived to be disrespectful. Since this is a known fact amongst the Chinese culture, a Chinese man would not ordinarily seek to shake hands with a woman, especially if her husband is present." 

  According to Mensah, such act would be common knowledge, since it is a know fact amongst the Chinese. Where this information was shared, and beliefs communicated, the feeling of shame or slighting of personality is eliminated, because, the participants either in a small group setting has been made aware of the cultural beliefs amongst the Chinese culture, in regards to hand shakes with women. "Discussion is an important factor in cultural diversity, and ultimately breaking of cultural barriers to communication, is about learning new things," Brookfield & Preskill, authors of Discussion as a way of Teaching, 2nd Edition, 2005.

  Learning through discussion is a collaborative enterprise in which the wisdom and experience of each participant contribute something important to the whole. Knowing that a Chinese woman may not want to shake hands with a man, gives the other party knowledge on how to conduct himself when he meets a Chinese woman. The individual now knows not to extend his hand, if for instant, he shakes hands with the men within the group. The Chinese man properly might just nod his head as a sign of respect, as in, he acknowledged the women in the group. As Brookfield & Preskill inferred, discussion, in general, tends to increase motivation, promote engagement with difficult material, and give people appreciation for what they can learn from one another and for what people can accomplished as a group.

Wisdom is not called wisdom for nothing.  Nigerians need to be aware of how to interact with each other with respect, knowledge and understanding. Cross-cultural communication is essentially founded upon wisdom, i.e. showing maturity of thought and action in dealing with people. When we have background knowledge to our cultural difference, much of our cultural barriers in communication within cultures would be avoided, if not broken.

One of the key factor and perhaps the number one barrier to group communication, is not listening. None active listening is a habit that can keep a person from developing friendship and relationship.  In fact, studies have revealed that listening is a very large part of school learning and is also one of our primary means to interacting with other people on personal bases.

When one listens attentively, and ask questions, assumptions would be eliminated, while knowledge is gained through understanding of what is  being shared. Confirming what is heard is essentially valuable before responding to a statement with which one disagrees. Listening and confirming what you've heard demonstrates that one understands the other person's position.

Active listening can sometimes be used when there is a barrier in cross-cultural communication.  According to an article published by the University of Colorado, USA, on Cross-Cultural Communication Strategies, where there is a conflict or barriers in cultural communication, active listening is used to check out what one thinks he or she heard, by doing so, one can confirm that one understands the communication accurately.

One other key factor to braking cultural barrier to communication is through active listening.  Active Listening is a structured form of discussion and responding that focus the attention on the speaker. Active listening forces people to listen attentively- in order to avoid misunderstanding.

In small groups discussion, such as this forum, the most valuable benefits that increases continuity is good listening.  Good listening skill aid communication and can be valuable. 

Although, active listening is never an easy task, inferred Brookfield, (2005), since it consumes psychic energy at a rate that tires and surprises, nonetheless, it is one of the most important steps to having a good relationship at work, at home and with friends.

As stated before, one key factor to effective cross-cultural communication is knowledge. In fact, according to two authors, William Gudykunst and Young Kim, on their excepts on Communication With Strangers: An Approach to International Communication; ‘one should always assume that there is a significant possibility that cultural difference are causing communication problems, and be willing to be patient and forgiving, rather than hostile and aggressive. It is important to assume that one's efforts will not always be successful, and as such one should adjust one's behavior appropriately.

They contended that, one should respond slowly and carefully in cross-cultural exchanges, not jumping to the conclusion that you know what is being thought or said, especially if problem develops. Breaking communication barriers can be hard, but achievable.  Since we live in a culturally diverse world, people will encounter individuals from different races, religions, and nationalities.

 In Nigeria, we have hundreds of beliefs system that conflict with the way we communicate our thinking, especially with our limited vocabulary. It can be therefore, paralyzing dealing with people we do not know what to expect from them, even in Nigeria where we think we know ourselves very well. The following suggestions were outlined in a manual, titled ‘Master Student,' by a young man, by the name of Dave Ellis.

According to Dave Ellis, the desire to communicate is the first step in being effective in communication. No matter what tools one gained in cross-cultural communication, the desire to connect with other human being is the bond that will express itself clearly. A genuine effort to understand another person goes a long way in the path to communication.    

Therefore, breaking cultural barriers to communication in Nigeria requires effort.  When you know something about an Ogba man or a Yoruba man, what you know will help you develop skills, and been proactive about what you know is a learned skill when approaching a new culture, like Ijaw, or Kalabari culture.

Ultimately, the barriers that exit between our Nigerian cultures, though deep, are really weak. What we need is the desire, information, and the willingness to take interpersonal risks to break barriers where they exit. An individual's ability to be open to new ideas and new people's way of expressing reality will go a long way in the process of our cross-cultural communication.


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