Two businessmen bowing towards each other as a greeting
Two businessmen bowing towards each other as a greeting

Wherever you live, you're going to be influenced by the attitudes, customs and practices of the people around you. Those basic elements are the definition of culture. When a person of one culture encounters the beliefs and resulting actions of another culture, there may be a clash. This can be a barrier to success. Those barriers can have huge implications at work, school or in the wider community.

Communication Differences

In the United States, people tend to look each other in the eye when speaking, and to use direct language to express their needs. In Hispanic culture, for example, looking someone in the eye can be construed as threatening or even sexual. Using that example, if a Hispanic person never looks her boss in the eye, she may be passed over for promotion because the boss perceives her to be rude or hiding something. If you don't know enough about the communication style of another person's culture, you might misconstrue gestures or body language, which could result in a breakdown in communication.

Group vs. Individual

In American culture, people tend to value individual freedom and independence. In some other cultures, there's more of a group mentality, and people tend to make decisions based on the good of the whole and to submit to authority more readily. This difference can be a cultural barrier, especially in the workplace. An Asian person taught to consider the good of the overall group might not ask directly for a promotion or toot his own horn about good things he's done at work -- which might mean he loses out to the co-worker who is continually showing her boss the progress she's made.

Effects of Religion

Religion can be a cultural barrier as well. A person's religion may dictate what she wears or eats, or the types of medications and medical interventions she can access. Juxtaposed against a more dominant culture, the person's religion can lead to discrimination or stereotyping. For example, workers may stereotype Muslim co-workers who fast during Ramadan and take time away from work several times a day to pray. On the flip side, a Christian in an Islamic country might be viewed as promiscuous or too open in the way she dresses or acts. This could result in fewer promotions or even discrimination in hiring.

Gender Roles

Women's roles in the home and workplace have changed significantly in recent decades in the United States. Americans tend to consider women and men equal in intelligence and general aptitude. In some other cultures, however, that's not always the case. Men from certain cultures might find it difficult to work under a female boss, for example. In some countries, women might find it difficult to gain a promotion or to work their way up the corporate ladder.