Intercultural Communication Barriers: Ethnocentrism, Stereotypes, Prejudice, Non-verbal Communication And Language


Our country is unique as it consists of a population that is made up of many different cultures, which has led South Africa to be known as the “Rainbow Nation”. One’s culture is built from many aspects namely religion, customs, beliefs, values, language and other characteristics shared by groups of people. The hospitality industry is known for its culturally diverse workplaces and operations. A diverse workforce allows for a positive organisational culture which in turn promotes competitive advantage. Furthermore, an increase in globalisation this past decade has allowed people to travel more, thereby increasing our exposure to culturally diverse societies. However, issues may occur when people from different cultural backgrounds misunderstand each other. This break down in intercultural communication may occur amongst co- workers as well as between hotel guests and employees. Intercultural communication involves sharing information (sending and receiving) among people of various cultures. In this essay I will discuss the five barriers to intercultural communication namely ethnocentrism, stereotypes, prejudice, nonverbal communication and language. Furthermore this essay will highlight some examples of each barrier and the strategies necessary to overcome them within the hospitality industry.


From birth we acquire the culture into which we are born and have our own learned set of values, beliefs, religion etc. It is therefore inevitable that this learned culture is adopted as the norm and considered to be correct. When faced with people of different cultures who all think differently, we tend to view them as wrong or peculiar. The above mentioned view contributes to ethnocentrism, which is the first barrier to intercultural communication I wish to discuss. Brown stated that “ethnocentrism is a belief that the norms, values, ideology, customs, and traditions of one’s own culture or subculture are superior to those characterizing other cultural settings”.

Ethnocentrism is therefore regarded as considering one’s own culture as being superior to others and in turn judging other cultures in relation to your own norms. As stated before South Africa has a very diverse workforce. Muslim women observe HIJAB (covering the head and the body) because the Quran stipulates it. Secondly it allows them to be appraised according to their capabilities, competence and skill rather than their looks. Muslim women employees may find other women employees to be extremely immoral and immodest as they do not cover their bodies completely when at work in view of the general public. This could be viewed as rude and results in a failure to communicate. Greeting a guest in the appropriate manner is very important as it creates a positive first impression. Different cultures have different ways of greeting e.g. Taiwanese people greet by pressing their hands together in a prayer fashion and slightly bowing their heads, the Japanese greet by bowing and in the Western World greeting is done by a handshake. If you refuse to bow when greeting a Japanese guest, insisting on shaking hands instead, you are displaying ethnocentrism. Guests who are not greeted accordingly may feel that they are not valued, thus communication is unproductive and pointless. Employees can also experience ethnocentrism from guests. When visiting South Africa, guests may judge South Africa based upon their comparison with their native country and assume that South Africa is undeveloped due to the load shedding etc. Perhaps if the guest was more aware of South Africa’s history they may not have made the assumption that South Africa is inferior to their country.

Efficient management of culturally diverse people is crucial as it contributes to the success of the hospitality industry. It is vital to initiate and reinforce an awareness of cultural diversity among hospitality employees through many training and inclusion programs as well as additional initiatives (e.g. celebrating international holidays, tasting the cuisine of different cultures etc.). It is also important to train staff on how to handle a guest that displays ethnocentrism as guests should always be dealt with in a courteous way. By training staff and helping them to understand different cultures we are in investing in the long-term growth of our industry.


Stereotyping is the second barrier to intercultural communication that I wish to discuss. According to Blum stereotypes are defined as “false or misleading generalisations about groups held in a manner that renders them largely, though not entirely, immune to counterevidence”. In other words, stereotyping are assumptions made about a group of people which are applied to individuals irrespective of their personal characteristics purely because they are associated with a certain group. The negative effects stereotypes have on intercultural communication are boundless. Stereotyping acts as a barrier to communication in the workplace as it allows employees to make pre-conceived judgements about their colleagues/guests which are unsupported. This eventually leads to barriers such as dread, agitation, disinterest, suspicion and fear.

Asian people are considered to be clever and hardworking because they excel at school and in their tertiary education studies. This unfair assumption works against employees who have the same qualification and/or skills, who are driven, hardworking and have a strong work ethic. As a result of this assumption Asian people may be the first choice when recruiting for the hospitality industry. Asian people may also be promoted ahead of equally competent co-workers. Cape Town has a very large Coloured community and the stereotype that all Coloureds have no front teeth can negatively affect them in obtaining jobs in the hospitality industry. Most of the jobs in hospitality industry are jobs where the personnel are in direct contact with guests. To many guests no front teeth may not be aesthetically appealing and may be offensive to the guest. For this reason the Human resource department may overlook a Coloureds application before even inviting them to be interviewed. Not only does stereotyping break down barriers between co-workers, but it can also be associated with guests which ultimately affects the type of service a guest receives. An excellent example of how stereotyping a guest changes the kind of service offered is the stereotype that all Jews are stingy. The Jewish guest will receive a lower standard of customer service as the waiter assumes that they will receive a lower gratuity from that guest.

To counter stereotyping in the hotel industry, employees need to be educated about people’s differences, their pasts and their concerns. This can be achieved through diversity training. Diversity training includes workshops where role-playing can help employees review typical situations that lead to negative stereotyping. Furthermore team building exercises that encompasses inclusivity and building bonds is necessary in order for employees to learn about different types of people. Sharing information and knowledge about different cultures is imperative in order to reach a common understanding and cultural inclusion. Knowledge sharing leads to a more creative workforce which drives innovation. Hospitality industries that are invested in training their staff in reducing stereotyping will be more successful in creating a more diverse workforce which in turn leads to increased productivity and increased employee loyalty.


Stereotypes give rise to the third barrier to intercultural communication I wish to discuss namely, prejudice. The word 'prejudice' has Latin roots' and means to judge before. Cañas & Sondak stated that prejudice is a “preconceived idea or negative attitude formed before the facts are known”. Prejudice is thus a negative or unfair opinion formed about someone before you have met that person and is not based on any interaction or experience with that person. When prejudice leads to incorrect conclusions about other people, it can breakdown intercultural communication and lead to feelings of hostility and resentment. When these pre-judged opinions are acted upon, discrimination may occur.

Many examples of prejudice exist in the hospitality industry. One example would be if the owner of a large hotel chain chooses not to employ people of a certain race because he believes them to be inferior to other races. This is discrimination based upon a kind of prejudice called racism. Prejudice amongst co-workers may exist when an employee refuses to work alongside and assist another employee of a different religion e.g. a Christian employee not wanting to assist a Jewish co-worker with work. This is discrimination based upon a prejudice called anti-Semitism.

Prejudice can be extended to the guests as well. An example would be if guests of a certain race had to pay for their hotel meals immediately while other guests of different races could charge it to their rooms. One of the most important strategies implemented to combat prejudice is offering diversity training to the employees. Diversity training helps co -workers value each other’s cultures rather than fear them. Diversity training can be in the form of instruction e.g. watching a video or interactive e.g. discussions. Another important strategy is to actively recruit culturally diverse employees so that the workplace is represented by all cultures and ethnic groups. This must not only be limited to employees but also applies to board members, directors and managers. When power is shared by leaders of different cultures, prejudice in the organisation is reduced. It is also vital that the organisation implement policies that eliminates prejudice in the workplace and provides the platform necessary for disciplinary action against prejudice complaints. The organisation must furthermore comply with governments Employment Equity Act and the Labour Relations Act in order to prevent prejudice and unfair discrimination.

Communication can take place even if no words are spoken. This is known as non-verbal communication and is the next barrier I am going to discuss. According to Voves non- verbal communication can be defined as “the process of sending and receiving messages via means other than words, like facial expressions, gestures, behaviour, tone of voice, etc.” What Voves is saying is that non-verbal communication includes all types of communication that does not form part of our spoken and written language. Most of our non-verbal cues are learned and varies between different cultures. Given the diverse range of cultures that the hospitality industry deals with, these non-verbal cues can easily be misinterpreted by the different cultures, leading to misunderstandings and even insults.

Touch is one example of non-verbal communication that varies between different cultures. In South Africa touching the top of a child’s head is a sign of affection. In most cultures this would please the parents as it shows the caring nature of the hotel staff. However in Thailand touching a child’s head is regarded as being rude. In the Thai culture a child’s head is seen as the home of the spirit and the soul, hence when touching a child’s head one is breaching the norms of social etiquette. Within the workplace some co- workers may assume that Black employees are being rude as they adopt a louder speaking tone to other South African cultures. It is nothing unusual for a Black employee to continue a conversation by shouting when sitting across the room, some distance away. The volume of a guest’s voice may also vary - Italians are generally loud speaking as they typically like to express their feelings and may be showing happiness or excitement. This could be regarded as being rude and may embarrass the English who prefer to oppress their feelings and speak with a softer tone. Hand gestures can help people communicate, but can result in confusion when it means different things in different cultures. An example would be the ‘OK’ sign made with ones thumb and forefinger. In South Africa this sign means everything is fine or okay and in Southern France it means you are calling someone a huge fat zero and can be regarded as a threat. Furthermore the same sign in Brazil means you are being obscene and in Turkey it is used to insult homosexuals.

Non-verbal communication barriers can be overcome by identifying and understanding them. It is therefore very important to learn as many cross cultural non-verbal cues as possible. Workplaces put a lot of effort into training staff in verbal skills i.e. reading, writing and speaking yet very little attention is given to training employees to recognise non- verbal communication cues. It is vital that hospitality industries invest in training employees and management in non- verbal communication norms across different cultures. This will give employees the tools to better interpret the true meaning of the message and will facilitate cross cultural communication. In order for one to become more competent in interpreting unfamiliar non-verbal cues one need be more observant, sensitive and adaptive to the various cues. This will assist you in becoming more open minded and flexible which in in turn facilities better non –verbal intercultural communication.


Language is the final barrier I am going to discuss. In the hospitality industry communication is essential for the business to run smoothly, yet communication is dependent on a shared language. Language is not merely the use of words but also strongly influenced by our culture. For this reason it is also important to understand the cultural backgrounds that are intrinsic to that language. According to Garcia a language barrier is ‘ a term used to imply all the problems faced by an individual as he tries to communicate with a group of people who speak a tongue other than his own”. Language barriers thus exist when a message is unable to be passed between people due to linguistic differences. Language barriers can cause huge misunderstandings. Using a language that is misunderstood breaks down communication and prevents the message from being interpreted correctly. This misunderstanding can lead to confusion and anxiety and the person may stop trying to communicate at all.

Languages barriers may occur even if both parties speak English as a first language. This may occur due to using different terminology in the message, which is not fully familiar to the receiver. Examples of this would be if a French chef asks the kitchen staff to prepare the zucchini. In South Africa zucchini is called baby marrow. Another example would be if an American patron asked for more cilantro, and the waiter not understanding that what Americans call cilantro, South Africans call coriander. The way a word is pronounced can also result in a language barrier. Pronouncing a word differently changes the meaning and interpretation of the message received which results in confusion. For example, if an Afrikaans speaking reception clerk tells a European guest that they do not accept “Heroes” instead of Euros. According to the Cambridge English dictionary, jargon can be defined as “special words and phrases that are used by particular groups of people, especially in their work.” Using jargon can result in a breakdown in communication both amongst employees of the establishment as well as with guests. Using jargon impedes the clarity of the message, creates confusion and makes the receiver feel stupid. An example would be if a hotel reservation clerk confuses a potential guest by saying ‘we’re fully committed on those dates” when what they mean is “we’re booked up for those dates.”

Language barriers can be overcome by using the following simple strategies. Firstly be respectful and demonstrate patience and empathy. Language barriers can be annoying, but never raise your voice. It is also important to try and use simple language with less complex words. This does not mean that you must talk down to the receiver, but means one must use more common vocabulary that conveys the meaning of the message. It is also important to be specific. Explain your message and expectations clearly. An example would be, Instead of, ‘Please get back to me shortly,’ say ‘Please have the completed document on my desk by 5 pm today”. Frequently checking for understanding will also prevent confusion. Check not only that others understand you, but that you understand them as well.


As seen from the above examples guests and employees of different cultures in the hospitality industry may have very different ways of communicating. The hospitality industry is regarded as being a service orientated industry and needs to provide the culturally diverse guests with service excellence. In order for service excellence to take place, all the staff need to have a clear understanding of the intercultural communication differences of co- workers and hotel guests alike. Once employees have mastered these differences, then only can employee’s work in harmony together and hence enrich the level of service experienced by the hotel guest.


  1. Blum, L.2004. Stereotypes And Stereotyping: A Moral Analysis. chive/LAWSAS-2.pdf [06 April 2019]
  2. Brown, S.2007.Ethnocentism. [17 March 2017]
  3. Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary & Thesaurus. 5th ed. 2019. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Canas, K and Sondak, N. 2011.Opportunities and Challenges of Workplace Diversity. New York: Pearson Publishers.
  5. Garcia, N. 2006. Language Barriers in the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. [15 July 2019]
  6. Sumner, W. G. 1906. Folkways a Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages Manners Customs Mores and Morals. [17 March 2019]
  7. Voves, J. 2005. Non verbal communication. [15 July 2019]
14 May 2021
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