Intercultural Communication Barriers in International Airlines


Effective communication is an important prerequisite for a cabin crew of an airline to perform its duties effectively. Communication between a cabin crew and passengers helps an airline to establish and maintain good relationships with passengers. Moreover, effective communication between cabin crew members is essential in the flight environment, which requires coordination among crew members. Commercial aviation is characterized by coordination not only between pilots on the cockpit, but also between cabin attendants and a flight crew, cabin attendants and passengers, as well as between the flight crew and ground personnel, dispatchers and air controllers. The primary language used by international airlines is English; however, when flying different routes, airlines use multi-cultural personnel. This results in a situation whereby cabin attendants serve passengers from different cultures. Such a cross-cultural environment is likely to result in communication challenges. Current paper discusses intercultural communication barriers in international airlines, especially in high context cabin crews.

Communication breakdown happens when a receiver does not understand the message being sent. Cabin attendants from high context cultures such as Japan, working for international airlines, always use English when communicating with passengers; however, they are not native English speakers. Both the cabin crew and passengers have different linguistic and cultural backgrounds that increase the probability of communication problems. Cabin crews from high context cultures working for international airlines experience two forms of communication barriers, which include verbal and nonverbal communication barriers.

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Verbal Communication Barriers

Communication is a form of interaction with other people. One way people interact with others is through verbal communication, which is the most common form of communication utilized in daily activities. Verbal communication, in addition to spoken or written words, includes other aspects such as pronunciation, meanings attached to words, and differences in the manner in which individuals speak a certain language, which is influenced by numerous factors such as occupation, education, race, gender, age and ethnicity among others.

The first barrier to intercultural communication that cabin crews working for international airlines experience is language differences. Although most cabin crews and airline personnel are able to speak English moderately well, variations in language aspects such as idioms, vocabulary, accents, pidgin, dialects, slang, jargon and others are likely to result in communication difficulties. There are over 3,000 dialects and languages in the world, which can be a cause to communication difficulties between linguistically diverse people. Even within one language, communication problems still arise, which can be attributed to the fact that language is constantly changing. For instance, some words may be discarded since they describe obsolete things. Moreover, words may have different meanings in different languages; as a result, language difference is a significant communication barrier for cabin crews of international airlines, especially those from high context cultures, for instance, Japan. The worst language barrier comes from people assigning the same meaning associated with a phrase or a word in their new language. Consider a situation, where a Japanese “Aren’t you tired?” The Japanese individual is likely to consider the literal meaning associated with the sentence and answer “no” to mean that he/she is tired. In contrast, Americans would interpret this response to mean that the individual is not tired.

Differences in culture is another barrier in verbal communication. Cultural values, assumptions, and behavior influence inter-cultural communication. Communication in a multi-cultural environment is not easy. Even though English is the most commonly utilized language in intercultural environments, communicating with people for whom English is not their native language is likely to result in confusion. When communicating with individuals from diverse cultures, it is imperative to consider how one is expressing him/herself. When English is used for communication in the intercultural environment, it should be devoid of multifaceted grammatical constructions, idioms, relaxed expressions, and slang.

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Barriers in Nonverbal Communication

Failing to comprehend nonverbal symbols and signs may hamper intercultural communication when culturally diverse people have different meanings associated with nonverbal codes. There are various nonverbal codes that differ between cultures that form a communication barrier. They include paralanguage, kinesics (facial expression and body language), touch, and distance and space (proxemics).

Paralanguage denotes vocal communication that does not utilize words. Examples of paralanguage are vocal qualities such as inflection, pitch, rhythm and volume; and sounds such as gasps and murmurs. Other aspects of paralanguage include complexity of sentences accent and pronunciation. Voices are used in expressing feelings; for example, shouting is used in articulating anger whereas whispering is used in expressing intimacy. Communication barrier stems from the fact that people from different cultures interpret paralanguage aspects differently. For instance, people from high context cultures such as Japan have a tendency of being silent when listening to others as a sign of respect whereas Americans have a tendency of being talkative individuals, which is considered the polite and respectful way of intermingling with other people.

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Kinesics entails eye behaviors, facial expressions, head movements, gestures and physical presentations used when communicating. Facial expressions are used in communicating more complicated messages and emotions. The problem is that different cultures are characterized by different aspects of kinesics, which, in turn, hampers communication in an intercultural environment. Attaching different meanings to facial expressions and body languages can be a source of potential misunderstanding in cross-cultural communication, because the shared meaning associated with body language in a particular culture might be different in another culture. Simply stated, some aspects of kinesics are culture specifics. For instance, Americans prefer direct eye contact while Asians prefer looking away, which to Americans, is a sign that one is neither attentive nor show respect to the speaker.

Touch is another aspect of nonverbal communication, which entails using physical contact as a means of creating a sense of connection, articulating one’s intensions and expression emotions. In close relations, touch is often used to indicate affection. In contrast, touch can also stimulate negative feelings when viewed as hypocritical and scheming. Nevertheless, tough differs across various cultures, which presents a communication barrier for cabin crews working for international airlines.

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