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Communication Barriers

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The elements of the communication process also potentially become the barriers of the communication process.

The following categories of communication barriers can be identified:

Barrier 1: Frame of Reference Barriers and Perceptual Barriers

Frame of reference is shaped by the person’s educational background, language proficiency, cultural background, intelligence, status, ego, emotions, beliefs, attitudes and values. A person’s frame of reference is not static and can change through life due to experiences over a lifetime. No two people have identical frames of reference. Perceptions are closely related to people’s frame of reference.

Perception is the process of selecting and organising information gained through the senses in such a way that it makes sense. It is a way of giving meaning to the world around us. A person bombarded with information has to select what is appropriate to him/her by filtering out unnecessary information. Because perception is selective no two people will experience or remember a certain situation the same.

Here are some examples of frame of reference barriers:

Barrier 2: Intercultural Barriers

People from the same culture share values, beliefs, certain rules and language. People are subjected daily to other cultures because the world is shrinking due to instant global communication. People need to be informed about the different cultures that they are dealing with. South Africa itself has a diverse population consisting of different cultures and ethnic groups. Each group has its own uniqueness and cultural characteristics although we share some common characteristics such as geography and laws.

According to Cleary, 2003 p29, some of the areas that communicators in South Africa should be sensitive about are:

Barriers to intercultural communication may arise if people view their own culture as superior to that of others and regard the other culture as wrong.

Different verbal and nonverbal codes in cultures may also lead to communication barriers.

Cultural stereotyping is also one of the pitfalls of intercultural communication e.g. all white people are racist; black people are always late; all Americans are loud talkers; etc.

In South Africa intercultural contact mostly takes place in organisations. Organisations therefore have a very important role to play in influencing behaviour and developing positive relationships.

Barrier 3: Communication Barriers Between Men and Women

Research provides important insight into the differences between men and women in terms of their conversational styles. According to Tannen (Robbins 2001, p296) men are more likely to use talk to emphasize status while women are more likely to use it to create connection. Women speak and hear a language of connection and intimacy; men speak and hear a language of status, power and independence. Men are more direct in their communication e.g. “these figures are wrong” opposed to “perhaps you have to check these figures”. Other differences include pitch of voice, use of body language, use of verbal language, narrative style, etc.

Both sexes must be aware of the differences in communication styles between men and women in order to avoid differences becoming communication barriers.

Barrier 4: Noise Barriers

Any distortion or disruption in the communication process can be referred to as noise. Noise can be physical or psychological.

Physical noise can be any background noises e.g. a noisy fan, people talking or interrupting, telephones ringing, a very cold room, etc.

Psychological noise is the noise going on in the mind of the person receiving the message. The person may be distracted because of emotional problems or negative feelings towards the sender of the message. Information overload is also a factor in modern society.

The demands of keeping up with e-mails, phone calls, faxes, meetings and professional reading material create an onslaught of data that is nearly impossible to process and assimilate. Spelling mistakes, bad pronunciation, ambiguous sentence construction and poor layout of written material can all interfere with the clearness of the message and can be regarded as noise barriers.

Management and workers should always be aware of the possibility that misinterpretations and misunderstandings may occur because of noise barriers.

Barrier 5: Choice of Medium Barriers

The choice of medium e.g. telephone, e-mail, face to face communication is very important in getting the message across. Electronic media no longer make it necessary for people to be at their work stations or desks all the time because they can be reached via cell phones or pagers. Networked computers make organisational boundaries less relevant because employees can jump vertical levels much easier.

Why do people choose one medium over another? Time and cost are factors but communication apprehension or anxiety also plays an important part. People may be afraid to speak in front of a group, or use the telephone, or they are not comfortable with writing letters or memos. People will avoid situations where they have to use a certain medium and that influence communication negatively. Telephoning an important message can result in misunderstandings because there is no written material that can be referred to. Sensitive issues may be handled better in face to face situations than over the telephone or via e-mail.

Barrier 6: Feedback Barriers

While a person is sending a message, the receiver will give a response/feedback. If the receiver does not understand the message or the message is not clear the sensitive sender will make adjustments to the message in order to clear up uncertainties. He will adapt, restructure or paraphrase. If the message is in written form e.g. an advertisement or editorial the medium does not allow for immediate feedback. Face-to-face and telephone conversations allow for constant feedback. During telephone messages nonverbal elements cannot be perceived and that may hamper communication.

Barrier 7: Coding Barriers

Certain words or gestures may be offensive to people and should be avoided in order not to create communication barriers. This is especially important if the employee works with customers. It may be offensive to speak of a person as “the old man” in stead of the “elderly gentleman” or “the senior person”. Words like “blind” may be substituted with “visually impaired”. In a business familiarity can also offend e.g. addressing a person by his/her name instead of Mr. or Ms. Somebody. Gestures such as pointing fingers, crossing arms and frowning may also be offensive.