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Intercultural Communication: Workers from Diverse Backgrounds Research Paper

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Updated: May 15th, 2020

Introduction

The current trend of global competition is forcing companies to establish overseas businesses to supplement their revenues. Because of distinct markets, social norms, and cultural backgrounds, multinational institutions encounter numerous problems and work hard to cope with new social settings. Verderber and Verderber (2008) allege that communication is quite intricate in multinational organizations due to a diverse body of workers with distinct educational, cultural, and social backgrounds. Challenges in intercultural communication hinder human resource management and decision-making in multinational companies. Also, cross-cultural sensitivity makes it hard for employees to interact and work as a team. According to Jameson (2007), language is one of the factors that cause discomfort among workers from diverse cultural backgrounds.

For instance, the majority of immigrant workers do not understand native English speakers. Differences in etiquette and values are other factors that inhibit intercultural communication. Some cultures value groups over individuals. Such cultures emphasize on group responsibility and reward group achievements. It underlines the reason some employees feel offended when complemented in public or selected to receive awards for their performance. For a company to benefit from a multicultural workforce, organizational leaders must know how to communicate and handle employees from different cultural backgrounds. This article will discuss the challenges in intercultural communication among workers from a diverse cultural background. The research will focus on the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development (DOJ&CD) in South Africa.

Literature Review

Globalization has brought about the inescapability of diversity in the workforce. According to Jameson (2007), diversity not only helps organizations but also leads to intercultural conflicts and communication breakdown. Therefore, diversity is one of the modern hurdles that affect institutions. Organizations with workers from diverse cultural backgrounds face immense communication challenges. Jameson (2007) alleges, “Since cultural understandings are often opaque to their bearers, potential culturally-based inefficiencies and conflicts can present themselves like icebergs” (p. 203). Appreciating cultural diversity facilitates intercultural communication and boosts employee relationships. Besides, it enables workers to make adaptive and productive decisions. Jameson (2007) holds that there is no unique way of discerning culture and its correlation to communication.

However, understanding low-context and a high-context conversation can go a long way towards enhancing intercultural communication. Low-context and high-context conversations refer to field dependencies that influence intercultural communication. Workers from one cultural background are likely to favor their culture over others. Hence, it is the duty of organizational leaders to promote pluralism. Workers ought to know that all cultures are important, and if harnessed, may help to boost organizational performance.

According to Würtz (2005), “Communication does not occur in a void; hence it is not resistant to external influence” (p. 15). Würtz (2005) alleges that the physical environment and social and cultural settings affect human communication. A dialectical point of view supposes that communication and culture are interrelated and mutual, making culture to affect communication. Verderber and Verderber (2008), maintain that communicating across culture occasionally result in misapprehensions due to the distinction in workers’ beliefs, attitudes, customs, values, and behaviors. Workers from diverse cultural backgrounds are unable to interact through verbal and non-verbal communication.

However, communication among workers from the same culture is possible as they can interpret both verbal and non-verbal cues. Jameson (2007) claims that it is clear that culture affects communication and vice versa. Communication and culture are interrelated and mutual. However, in an intercultural context, one is supposed to consider cultural differences. What may be regarded as successful communication and the tolerable manner in one culture may be intolerable in another.

The uncertainty reduction theory maintains that when a person joins a new culture, s/he does not know how to behave. In other words, the person suffers from cognitive uncertainty, which makes him/her feel insecure. Schlesinger (2005) posits that a stranger may assimilate into a new culture by changing his/her expectations, altering anxiety, and reducing cognitive uncertainty. Therefore, intercultural communication influences effectiveness and adaptation among workers from diverse cultural backgrounds. Schlesinger (2005) argues, “During intercultural communication, it is assumed that the message sent is normally not the message received” (p. 47).

Whenever workers from diverse cultural backgrounds meet to converse, they bring along distinct emotions, principles, behaviors, and opinions that were nurtured by culture. According to Schlesinger (2005), intercultural communication entails encoding and decoding of messages. At times, cross-cultural communication suffers from ethnocentrism, which results in miscommunication and conflict between workers. Intercultural communication is presumed to be mainly a non-verbal act among workers that leads to a primarily non-verbal process. The presence of status, control, and intimacy among workers are naturally achieved through non-verbal prompts. Schlesinger (2005) maintains that workers from diverse cultural backgrounds live on different planets, and therefore interpret messages differently.

Competition in the global economy has forced organizations to recruit workers from diverse cultural backgrounds in order to handle a multicultural consumer base. Even though a multicultural workforce helps an organization to serve customers from different cultural backgrounds, it suffers from communication breakdowns, which might be costly to an institution (Kumar, Michaelsen & Watson, 2004). One of the factors that lead to communication breakdown is anxiety. Workers get anxious if they do not understand their responsibilities or what other employees say. Kumar et al. (2004) argue that workers tend to focus most attention on their worries leading to them behaving awkward and making mistakes. Ethnocentrism is another phenomenon that is prevalent among workers from diverse cultural backgrounds, and that hinders intercultural communication. Ethnocentrism refers to “judging aspects of other customs by the standards of one’s culture” (Kumar et al., 2004, p. 93).

Ethnocentrism hinders intercultural communication and impedes the sharing of ideas among workers. Kumar et al. (2004) claim that ethnocentrism can help to unify workers if well utilized. However, it may be counter-productive if workers fail to appreciate the value of other cultures. In most cases, ethnocentrism hinders intercultural communication because it harbors prejudice, oppression, isolation, and discrimination. Workers from one cultural background tend to consider themselves superior to other employees, therefore isolating them. They begin to suspect their colleagues and avoid relating to them.

Verderber and Verderber (2008) argue that intercultural communication is susceptible to prejudice and stereotype. In some instances, intimidating humor and group labeling characterize communication among workers from diverse cultural backgrounds. Besides, some workers use a speech that signifies their authority over employees who do not belong to their culture. Alberts, Nakayama, and Martin (2010) maintain that stereotyping results in misconceptions in intercultural communication. The misconception arises when terms such as “Blacks and Whites” or “us and them” happen to be used in a conversation. Diverse cultures interpret these terms differently, resulting in an inflexible and biased view of particular traits as either right or wrong. Stereotyping leads to an upsetting communication challenge among workers from diverse cultural backgrounds.

One mistake that workers make is to assume a similarity between cultures. Workers from different cultural backgrounds are, in most cases, unconscious of cultural differences during communication. Alberts et al. (2010) claim that when workers are unaware of cultural differences, they tend to generalize the cultures. Nevertheless, assuming similarity between cultures helps workers to appreciate the values that are common to the cultures. Alberts et al. (2010) argue that most workers avoid intercultural communication. They prefer relating to workers from their cultural background.

Neuliep (2009) refers to the tendency of fearing to converse with employees from a diverse cultural background as intercultural communication apprehension (ICA). Some workers view other cultures as unusual and strange. Consequently, they develop anxiety and tension, which makes them avoid interacting with workers from those cultures. The ability of employees to deal with cultural stress affects their readiness to engage in intercultural communication. For workers to participate in cross-cultural communication, they ought to put up with uncertainty at an individual level. The more workers can bear ambivalence and manage trauma, the more likely they are to embrace intercultural communication.

Phenomena of Study

Bovee and Thill (2008) allege that managers and workers require skills to communicate effectively with employees from diverse cultural backgrounds. They maintain that intercultural communication is a difficult endeavor. Cross-cultural communication is essential for an organization as it facilitates sending and receiving of information between workers, supervisors, and managers. Understanding people’s culture can go a long way towards promoting a healthy relationship between workers.

South Africa is one of the nations with diverse cultures. The country has at least eleven different cultures. All eleven cultures have been assimilated into organizations and influence intercultural communication and relationships among employees. Most organizations are unable to build trust between workers from different cultural backgrounds. Consequently, it is hard for workers to relate to each other and work harmoniously. One of the institutions that face challenges in intercultural communication and employee relationship is the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development (DOJ&CD). The department is responsible for safeguarding the South African constitution, upholding the rule of law and ensuring impartiality in the administration of justice.

The communication policy of the Department of Justice and Constitutional development holds that valuable communication is necessary to trounce cultural diversity across cultures, nationality, behaviors, and religion of staff working at the DOJ&CD. Alberts et al. (2010) posit that in 2010, workers at the Department of Justice and Constitution Development witnessed a high number of complaints emanating from racial and cultural differences. They argue that leaders at the DOJ&CD are unable to liaise with different workers due to communication breakdown. Miscommunication in the DOJ&CD happens due to cultural, social, policy, and religious differences. These indifferences often result in conflicts and anxiety that lead to disagreements among workers.

Research Methodology and Data Collection

Research Objectives

The objective of this study is to offer a hypothetical overview of intercultural communication in a diverse workforce. In addition, the study aims at determining the degree of cultural experience among the staff members of the DOJ&CD to identify if cultural differences contribute to challenges in intercultural communication and employee relations. Moreover, the research aims at coming up with appropriate recommendations that may enhance intercultural communication and employee relations at COJ&CD.

Data Collection

For a research study to obtain comprehensive results, it is imperative to choose an appropriate method of data collection. Factors like the researcher’s expertise, objectives of the study, cost, and time constraints were considered when selecting the method of data collection for this study. Erroneous data collection may lead to a researcher obtaining invalid results. Mouton (2002) argues that researchers must use valid measuring instruments like questionnaires, scales, and observation to guarantee the reliability and validity of the study. This study opted to use both qualitative and quantitative data. The researcher used questionnaires to collect data from the participants.

He chose to use questionnaires due to the nature of the required data. According to Mouton (2002), questionnaires are cost-effective and enable researchers to gather data from multiple participants within a short period. Also, it is easy to compute the results of questionnaires using software packages. Another benefit of questionnaires is that they can be evaluated in a more objective and systematic manner compared to other methods of data collection.

Due to time constraints, the researcher used closed-ended questions. The questions were structured to collect data on the opinions that workers at DOJ&CD have towards intercultural communication and employee relationships. Participants were asked questions that mainly focused on intercultural interactions. For instance, they were supposed to state if cultural differences posed a significant threat to the efficient delivery of services in the institution. Moreover, the participants were asked to identify the intercultural challenges that they faced in their day-to-day operations. They were also requested to comment on the impacts of cultural diversity on employee relationships. The respondents were supposed to state whether the established communication policies helped to enhance intercultural communication.

Description of Participants

Research participants refer to the individuals who take part in human subject research. Mouton (2002) alleges that a researcher selects participants based on the objective of the study. For this study, a total of 100 workers from the DOJ&CD were picked to participate in the research. The 100 participants were selected from different directorates namely: finance (25 workers), human resource (30 workers), court operations (28 workers) and legal services (22 workers). The participants were selected based on their race, religion, and nationality. Besides, the participants had to have worked at the DOJ&CD for at least two years.

Data Analysis

Welman and Kruger (2001) allege, “A researcher should choose an appropriate statistical procedure to analyze the data that will be obtained” (p. 194). There are numerous ways of analyzing qualitative and quantitative data. The researcher used content analysis to synthesize the qualitative data. On the other hand, they used coding and statistical techniques to analyze quantitative data. Babbie (2007) refers to quantitative analysis as the arithmetic manipulation and depiction of data to elucidate and describe the phenomena that the data represent. The researcher used statistical software to analyze the quantitative data obtained from this study.

They used a 2012 version of Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) to evaluate the data collected through questionnaires. The software is used to analyze quantitative data. It gave the researcher an opportunity to analyze the research data in different ways. In addition, it enabled the researcher to present their findings in a systematic manner. Most quantitative analyses are prone to human error. Failure to use statistical software to analyze quantitative data results in misleading conclusions. Therefore, this study used SPSS as a way to guarantee the reliability and validity of the findings.

Findings

From the study, 5.7% of the participants claimed that they were reluctant to work with employees from other cultures. In addition, 8.4% of the participants were not sure if they could interact freely with workers from other cultures. However, 85.9% of the participants alleged that they had no problem working with staff from other cultures. The majority of those who testified that they could not work with staff from other cultures stated that they were apprehensive of their colleagues.

Also, they exhibited ethnocentric behaviors, which made them loathe other cultures. A fraction of the participants (9.4%) claimed that working with employees from diverse cultural backgrounds was extremely complicated. However, 83.7% of the participants claimed that intercultural communication and employee relationships depend on the capacity to interpret other cultures correctly. They claimed that working with employees from other cultures could be simplified by understanding and treating all workers equally. The primary reason many employees claimed that intercultural relationship was not challenging is because they had never been exposed to intricate situations.

Some participants claimed that challenges in intercultural communication led to impediments in service delivery. At least 14.7% of the participants claimed that working with employees from different cultures affected their productivity and efficiency. They claimed that it was hard to understand their colleagues, thus being unable to provide services efficiently. Some participants felt that working with employees from diverse cultural backgrounds gave them an opportunity to nurture intercultural skills. They alleged that DOJ&CD has established policies that play a significant role in enhancing employee relationship and cross-cultural communication.

A substantial number of participants (42.9%) admitted that cultural differences at DOJ&CD resulted in misunderstandings. When workers from diverse cultural backgrounds come together, the differences between them lead to conflicts. Most participants were found to have little knowledge about other cultures, which contributed to misunderstandings and conflicts.

Reflection

Globalization has enabled organizations to venture into foreign markets as a way to expand their customer base. Therefore, organizational leaders are left with no alternative but to cope with a workforce comprising of diverse cultures. Companies cannot thrive in an intercultural environment if leaders do not know how to assess and cope with employees’ cultures. Therefore, organizational leaders ought to learn the values, habits, history and way of life of different employees to exploit their talents. Managers cannot gain skills in intercultural communication without working with employees from diverse cultural backgrounds. From the study, it is evident that people have a lot in common despite their cultural differences. Rather than focusing on cultural differences, employees ought to work together for the sake of everyone. No matter the cultural affiliation, sincere and transparent cross-cultural communication may help to accomplish objectives that benefit all employees.

The study showed that organizations can enhance cross-cultural relations by recruiting workers from diverse cultural backgrounds. Even though most employees regard working across cultures as challenging, it is worth to note that it facilitates personal growth. Moreover, a healthy relationship between employees from diverse cultural backgrounds enhances service delivery and boosts economic profits. Apart from cultural differences, other factors like technology contribute to misunderstandings between workers from different cultural backgrounds. Therefore, organizational leaders must train employees in modern technology. For organizations to succeed in intercultural communication, they must ensure that they relay information in a manner that all workers understand.

Limitations

One of the limitations of this study is that it used closed-ended questions. Hence, it was hard for the researcher to get the original views of the participants. Closed-ended questions do not give the respondents an opportunity to explain their opinions. Thus, it was hard for the researcher to understand why respondents shared different opinions. Besides, it was hard for the researcher to ascertain how open the respondents were. In most cases, participants respond to questions based on their emotions. Some participants may discredit a culture not because it affects them negatively, but because they do not like it. Another limitation of this study is that it was hard for the researcher to determine how thoughtful the respondents were when answering the questions. Respondents were only required to give short responses to the questions.

Thus, participants may have responded to some questions without thinking too much about their answers. The fact that open-ended questions do not require employees to support their response paves room for reluctance. Some employees may answer the questions just for the sake of completing the questionnaire, therefore giving false information. Mouton (2002) argues that questionnaires are prone to misinterpretation, especially if respondents fail to clarify where they do not understand. Consequently, this study was prone to distortion. The majority of the participants never asked for clarification when answering the questions. It does not mean that the respondents understood all the questions. Some respondents might not have answered the questions without reading them. There is a possibility that some participants misinterpreted the questions and answered them, according to their understanding.

References

Alberts, J., Nakayama, T., & Martin, J. (2010). Human communication in society. New York: Pearson Education. Web.

Babbie, E. (2007). The practice of social research. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. Web.

Bovee, L., & Thill, J. (2008). Business communication today. Canada: Prentice Hall. Web.

Jameson, D. (2007). Reconceptualizing cultural identity and its role in intercultural business communication. Journal of Business Communication, 44(3), 199-235. Web.

Kumar, K., Michaelsen, L., & Watson, W. (2004). Cultural diversity’s impact on interaction process and performance: Comparing homogeneous and diverse task groups. Academy of Management Journal, 36(3), 590-602. Web.

Mouton, H. (2002). How to succeed in your master’s and doctoral studies: A South African guide and resource book. Pretoria: Van Schaik. Web.

Neuliep, J. (2009). Intercultural communication: A contextual approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Web.

Schlesinger, A. (2005). The necessity of intercultural communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Web.

Verderber, K. & Verderber, R. (2008). Communicate. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. Web.

Welman, J., & Kruger, S. (2001). Research methodology. Cape Town: Oxford University Press. Web.

Würtz, E. (2005). A cross-cultural analysis of websites from high-context cultures and low-context cultures. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(1), 13-23. Web.

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