What Are Cultural Barriers?

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, a clash can occur, which can be a barrier to success. Such barriers can have significant 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 use direct language to express their needs. In Hispanic culture, however, looking someone in the eye can be construed as threatening or even sexual. While many cultures view the "thumbs up" sign as a positive expression of approval, people in Bangladesh would take it as an insult. 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. Some other cultures foster 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 working in the United States and 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. Workers from cultures that focus on collaboration rather than competition in the workplace are less likely to succeed in a workforce that praises individual success like the United States.

Effects of Religion

Religion can be a cultural barrier as well. A person's religion may dictate what she wears or eats as well as 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 make false assumptions about 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, which could result in fewer promotions or even discrimination in hiring. Living or working in any place where another culture dominates typically gives rise to these potentially negative impacts.

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 cultures where women have not yet gained consideration as equals might find it difficult to work under a female boss, for example. Women in the Middle East or North African regions still face considerable cultural and social stigma about their presence in the workplace. In most countries, women might find it difficult to gain a promotion or to work their way up the corporate ladder because masculinity is typically associated with leadership whereas femininity is seen as less compatible with leadership. Women seeking promotion usually have to prove themselves through performance while men are more commonly promoted based on potential rather than performance.