Stumbling Blocks in Intercultural Communication by LaRay M. Barna
Intercultural communication competence
Intercultural communication competence is defined as:
“the overall internal capability of an individual to manage key challenging features of intercultural
communication: namely, cultural differences and unfamiliarity, intergroup posture, and the
accompanying experience of stress” (p. 187).
“…to be interculturally competent means to be able to manage (such) stress, regain internal balance,
and carry out the communication process in such a way that contributes to successful interaction
outcomes” (pp. 183 – 184).
How do we become competent intercultural communicators?
To study the history, political structure, art, literature and language of the country only provides you
with a frame of reference.
Instead it is important:
- to develop an investigative, nonjudgmental attitude,
- to develop a high tolerance for ambiguity,
- to learn to understand the assumptions and values on which one’s own behavior rests.
To become aware of the six stumbling blocks is, according to Barna, the first step on the road to
becoming a competent intercultural communicator.
The six stumbling blocks
1. Assumption of similarities; assuming similarity instead of difference.
We mistakenly assume that there are a sufficient number of similarities among peoples of the
world to make communication easy.
This assumption is based on:
- the fact that we have common biological and social needs,
- if we assume everybody is the same, we do not have to deal with difference – it is
We have to realize that there are no universals of “human nature” that can be used as a basis for
automatic understanding. We have to assume differences.
2. Language difference
Problems related to language differences:
- clinging to just one meaning of a word or phrase in the new language,
- different styles of using language:
direct – indirect
expansive – succinct
argumentative – conciliatory
instrumental – harmonizing
These different styles can lead to wrong interpretations of intent and evaluations of insincerity,
aggressiveness, deviousness, arrogance etc.
3. Nonverbal misinterpretations
People from different cultures inhabit different sensory realities. They see, hear, feel and smell
only that which has some meaning or importance to them. That is, we interpret nonverbal signs
and symbols through the frame of reference of our own culture and this will most likely lead to
4. The presence of preconceptions and stereotypes
Stereotypes help reduce the threat of the unknown by making the world predictable and in this
way stereotypes increase our feeling of security when we are in a foreign country.
However, stereotypes interfere with objective viewing of stimuli and are therefore a stumbling
block in intercultural communication.
5. Tendency to evaluate
We assume that our own culture or way of life is the most natural and judge others by our
standards. Based on our own culture and way of life, we approve or disapprove of the
statements and actions of the other person or group.
Instead we need to be open-minded and examine attitudes and behaviors from the other’s point
6. High anxiety (tension/stress)
When going abroad we are attacked by verbal, nonverbal, physical and psychological stimuli
often very different from the stimuli we are used to. This causes us to feel stress and anxiety.
Too much anxiety or tension requires some kind of relief, often in the form of defenses. Defense
mechanisms prevent the listener from concentrating upon the message and defensive recipients
distort what they receive.
Problems to consider:
Do you consider yourself to be interculturally competent?
What is your approach when you meet new people – to assume similarity or to assume
Have any of Barna’s six stumbling blocks ever prevented you from communicating successfully
with someone from another culture?
Is it at all possible to learn intercultural competence “from a book”?
Overcoming the Golden Rule: Sympathy and Empathy by Milton Bennett
As Barna, Bennett discusses the assumption of similarity and the problems this assumption causes
in all communication, focusing on intercultural communication.
The assumption of similarity underlies what he terms the Golden Rule. Abiding to the Golden Rule,
you treat other people the way you want them to treat you. That is, you assume they want the same
as you, that they are similar to you.
The Golden Rule can be said to embody a basic truth: all of us are equally human; we have a “basic
Idealists & Empiricists
The assumption of similarity is related to theories of single-reality.
In philosophy both idealists and empiricists represent the assumption of similarity/theories of
Idealists: Differences among people are ephemeral phenomena of the lower planes of existence,
superficial in relation to the essential unity of the higher planes.
Empiricists: There is no transcendent reality; there is only the observable world of matter. Only that
which is observed is diverse. The observers are similar in their ability to observe the same thing.
Two of the social consequences of single-reality theory and the assumption of similarity are “the
melting pot” and “ethnocentrism”.
The melting pot: Immigrants to the U.S. are expected to assimilate, to become Americans, letting go
of their own cultural characteristics.
Ethnocentrism: This term refers to the tendency to see your own culture as the center of the
universe, the one and only true reality. You use your own group and your own customs as the
standard for all judgments.
The communication strategy associated with these ideas is sympathy. Sympathy is defined as: “the
imaginative placing of ourselves in another person’s position”.
We are not taking the role of another person or imagining how this person thinks or feels. Rather we
are referencing how we ourselves might think or feel in similar circumstances.
Bennett distinguishes between two ways of responding sympathetically:
A) Reminiscent sympathy: We search our past experience for circumstances that seem similar to
those observed as connected to the other person’s experience.
B) Imaginative sympathy: Imagining ourselves in different circumstances.
The assumption of difference
According to Bennett, relying on the Golden Rule, the assumption of similarity and theories of
single-reality is problematic in specifically intercultural communication because by doing so, we
fail to recognize the crucial differences to which our communication must be accommodated.
We need to realize that each human being is essentially unique.
Not only do human beings speak different languages; they also differ culturally, physiologically,
psychologically and in their construction of events.
Theories of multiple-reality
The assumption of difference is consistent with theories of multiple-reality: reality is not a given,
discoverable quantity. Rather it is a variable, created quality.
The idea of primary importance in this connection is the relativity of frame of reference. This refers
to the change in apparent reality that accompanies a change in observational perspective. Or in other
words, the reality we experience is a variable matter of perception and communication.
The communication strategy most appropriate to multiple-reality and the assumption of difference
is empathy. Empathy is defined as: “the imaginative intellectual and emotional participation in
another person’s experience”.
When empathic, we “participate” rather than “place”; we are concerned with “experience” and
“perspective” rather than “position”.
That is, we need to do more than merely change places or stand in the other person’s shoes. We
need to get inside the head and heart of the other, to participate in his or her experience as if we
were really the other person.
Developing empathic skills
Overcoming the Golden Rule and developing empathic skills are, according to Bennett, crucial
steps on the road to successful intercultural communication. Bennett presents a guide to developing
Assuming Difference Knowing Self Suspending Self Allowing Guided Imagination
Allowing Empathic Experience Reestablishing Self.
1. Assuming Difference: We have to accept that we might be different, given different
construction and circumstances. Then we are free to imagine our thoughts and feelings from
that different perspective.
2. Knowing Self: In order not to “lose ourselves”, we need to know ourselves sufficiently well
so that an easy establishment of individual identity is possible. Or in other words, if we are
aware of our own cultural and individual values, assumptions and beliefs, we need not fear
losing our own Self.
3. Suspending Self: We set aside our own identity, our own Self – we extend the boundary of
4. Allowing Guided Imagination: We must allow our imagination to be guided into the
experience of a specific other person, allow our imagination to be captured by that other
5. Allowing Empathic Experience: When we have allowed our imagination to be guided inside
the other person, we are in the position to experience that person as if that person were
6. Reestablishing Self: We need to find our way back to our own Self, our own identity.
According to Bennett, the use of empathy might serve to create a more sensitive and respectful
climate for interracial and intercultural communication.
Problems to consider:
When meeting new people what communication strategy do you usually use: empathy or sympathy?
Have you experienced any disadvantages of using one or the other?
Are there any advantages of sympathy?
Is it always possible to use empathy as a communication strategy, no matter the differences you are
facing? Or in other words: Can the person you are communicating with turn out to be too different
from you, making the empathic approach impossible – even for a master of empathy?
Is it possible for everybody to develop emphatic skills?