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2.3: Barriers to Intercultural Communication

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    Learning Objectives

    • Analyze barriers to effective intercultural communication.
    • Define and give examples of ethnocentrism.
    • Define and give examples of stereotyping.

     "How You See Me" series on YouTube features "real" people discussing their cultural identifies.(

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): How You See Me. (Nick Ross)

    Barriers to Intercultural Communication

    Most of us can appreciate the important of intercultural communication, yet several stumbling blocks may get in the way of a positive intercultural communication experience.  Some of the most common ones are anxiety, 


    It is not unusual to experience some level of discomfort in communicating with individuals from other cultures or co-cultures.  It may be that we feel as though we will do or say the wrong thing.  This can make the interaction awkward or can lead us to avoid opportunities for intercultural communication. Although not as detrimental as ethnocentrism or stereotypes, anxiety can prevent us from making intercultural connections that will enrich our lives.

    Assumption of Similarities

    Although you know differently, many people mistakenly assume that simply being human makes everyone alike.  However, as we've discussed, values, beliefs, and attitudes can vary vastly from culture to culture.  Those who assume a person from another cultural background is just like them will often misread or misinterpret and perhaps even be offended by any intercultural encounter.  In intercultural communication, assume differences in communication style will exist that you may be unaware of.  It is important to avoid interpreting another individual's behavior through your own cultural lens.


    Where did you start reading on this page? The top left corner. Why not the bottom right corner, or the top right one? In English, we read left to right, from the top of the page to the bottom. But not everyone reads the same. If you read and write Arabic or Hebrew, you will proceed from right to left. Neither is right or wrong, simply different. Americans tend to say that people from England drive on the “wrong” side of the road, rather than on the “other” side. You may find it hard to drive on the other side of the road while visiting England, but for people in the United Kingdom, it is normal and natural.  A high level of appreciation for one’s own culture can be healthy; a shared sense of community pride, for example, connects people in a society. But ethnocentrism can lead to disdain or dislike for other cultures and could cause misunderstanding and conflict. Ethnocentrism assumes our culture or co-culture is superior to or more important than others and evaluates all other cultures against it. To dismantle ethnocentrism, we must recognize that our views of the world, what we consider right and wrong, normal or weird, are largely influenced by our cultural standpoint and that our cultural standpoint is not everyone's cultural standpoint. This ethnocentric bias has received some challenge recently in United States’ schools as teachers make efforts to create a multicultural classroom by incorporating books, short stories, and traditions from non-dominant groups.

    Ethnocentrism shows up in large and small ways.  A "small" way might be in disdain for other cultures' or co-cultures' food preferences. Some individuals express disgust at other cultures’ eating meat from a dog or guinea pig, for example, while they don’t question their own habit of eating cows or pigs. A "large" and one of the most horrific examples of ethnocentrism in history can be seen is in the Nazi’s elevation of the Aryan race in World War II and the corresponding killing of Jews, Gypsies, gays and lesbians, and other non-Aryan groups. 


    Stereotypes are oversimplified ideas about groups of people. Stereotypes can be based on race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation — almost any characteristic. They may be positive, such as all Asian students are good at math, but are most often negative, such as all overweight people are lazy.  Stereotyping is a generalization that doesn't take individual differences into account.  

    Stereotypes are frequently expressed on TV, in movies, chat rooms and blogs, and in conversations with friends and family. Further research has found that stereotypes are often used outside of our awareness, making it very difficult to correct them. And when we are distracted or under time pressure, these tendencies become even more powerful (Stangor & Duan, 1991). Still, it’s crucial to try to recognize our own stereotypic thinking. Treating individuals according to rigid stereotypic beliefs is detrimental to all aspects of the communication process and can lead to prejudice and discrimination.


    Prejudice is a negative attitude and feeling toward an individual based solely on one’s membership in a particular social group, such as gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, social class, religion, sexual orientation, profession, and many more (Allport, 1954; Brown, 2010). An example of prejudice is having a negative attitude toward people who are not born in the United States and disliking them because of their status as "foreigners."

    Because it is often difficult to recognize our own prejudices, several tests have been created to help us recognize our own "implicit" or hidden biases. The most well-known implicit measure of prejudice—the Implicit Association Test (IAT)—is frequently used to assess stereotypes and prejudice (Nosek, Greenwald, & Banaji, 2007). In the IAT, participants are asked to classify stimuli that they view on a computer screen into one of two categories by pressing one of two computer keys, one with their left hand and one with their right hand. Furthermore, the categories are arranged such that the responses to be answered with the left and right buttons either “fit with” (match) the stereotype or do not “fit with” (mismatch) the stereotype.  

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    When our prejudices and stereotypes are unchallenged, they can lead to action in the forms of discrimination and even  violence. Racial discrimination is discrimination against an individual based solely on membership in a specific racial group. There have been a number of shocking highly publicized instances in which African-Americans were killed by vigilantes or law enforcement, one of the more disturbing being the case of George Floyd.  On May 25, 2020, George Floyd died after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for over 8 minutes; almost 3 of those minutes were after Floyd was unconscious. (Dovidio et al., 2010).  And in late 2020, "the United Nations issued a report that detailed "an alarming level" of racially motivated violence and other hate incidents against Asian Americans." According to a Pew Research Report, "32% of Asian adults say they have feared someone might threaten or physically attack them...with the majority of Asian adults (81%) saying violence against them is increasing. (Pew Research Center, Ap. 11, 2021)  Mexican Americans and other Latinx groups are also targets, both of citizens and police. (Dovidio et al., 2010) 

    Discussions about stereotypes, prejudice, racism, and discrimination are unsettling to some. However, we must recognize these attributes in ourselves and others before we can take steps to challenge and change their existence.

    Key Terms

    • Anxiety
    • Ethnocentrism
    • Stereotyping
    • Prejudice
    • Racial discrimination


    For Discussion

    1. Have you ever felt as though you were stereotyped?  Explain when this happened and how it made you feel.  Have you ever been guilty of stereotyping others, perhaps unintentionally?
    2. Discuss examples of stereotypes you have read about or seen in media.
    3. If you would like to develop more understanding of prejudice, see some of the short videos at at this link:
    4. What are some forms of discrimination other than racial discrimination?  Have you ever experienced or witnessed what you thought was discrimination?  Explain.

    Activities: Experiencing Intercultural Barriers Through Media

    1. Activity 1: When watching the following video, notice all of the stereotypes people who are native to Alaska face, and think about how you’d approach a conversation with someone from the area. Try to consider the situation from another perspective.
    2. What People Get Wrong About Alaska Natives:
    3. Multimedia: Comedian and news anchor Trevor Noah discusses trying a taco for the first time. More importantly, look at the misunderstanding that happens in the use of language in the clip. Think about whether you may have had misunderstandings like these with friends from other cultures. Trevor Noah: That’s Racist - Tacos
    4. Multimedia: Biracial actresses from Sister, Sister discuss their marriages. One of the twins is married to an African American man, and the other is married to a white man. Think about your own experience with interracial couples, or even your own experience being part of an interracial couple. How do you react when you hear such things?
    5. Ethnocentrism and Mobility - Read the article “The Inevitability of Ethnocentrism Revisited: Ethnocentrism Diminishes As Mobility Increases,” located at What does the article say about in-group and out-groups? How does mobility reduce out-group hostility? Does traveling help reduce ethnocentrism?


    Ruiz, Neil, Khadidijah Edwards, and Mark Lopez. Pew Research Center, 21 April 2021.

    Chung, L. (2019). Crossing boundaries: Cross-cultural communication. In K. D. Keith (Ed.), Cross-cultural psychology: Contemporary themes and perspectives (pp. 400-420). Wiley.

    Hall, E. T. (1976). Beyond Culture. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books/Doubleday.

    Intercultural Conflict Management. Butte College, 10 Sept. 2020,


    This page titled 2.3: Barriers to Intercultural Communication is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lisa Coleman, Thomas King, & William Turner.