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Challenges of Diverse Communication Styles in the Intercultural Classroom

Communicative differences due to a rise in cultural diversity in western tertiary institutions can create significant challenges (Taras & Rowney, 2007). Verbal and nonverbal communication may methods differ between cultures , which can lead to negative outcomes in diverse classrooms (Jandt, 2007). Three challenges that may face western tertiary institutions, local students, staff and international students are: Staff members could see some students as weaker, the likely impairment of student team cohesion, and possible difficulties for international students to form friendships with local students (Jandt, 2007; Rienties & Tempelaar, 2013; Taras & Rowney, 2007).

Cultural diversity in western tertiary institutions, measured in both diversity amount and diversity degree, is increasing. The diversity amount is the number of different cultural groups, whereas the more influential diversity degree is the difference in culture between the groups (Taras & Rowney, 2007). In the United States the degree of diversity of immigrants has substantially increased, from immigrants mostly being from Western Europe in the mid 1960s to Asian and Pacific region immigrants rising to 48 per cent in the mid 1990s (Rowney, 2006 as cited in Taras & Rowney, 2007). Likewise, in Western Europe, immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe have increased (Breem & Thierry, 2004 as cited in Taras & Rowney, 2007). Taras and Rowney (2007) argue that an increase in immigration diversity has a direct effect on western tertiary institutions, increasing cultural diversity.

An increase in cultural diversity is likely to lead to an increase in verbal and non-verbal communication styles (Jandt, 2007; Taras & Rowney, 2007). Hofstede’s (1986, 2001 as cited in Rienties & Tempelaar, 2013) cultural dimensions, specifically power-distance, may help explain differences both verbal and non-verbal communication style. Power-distance is described as the inherent differences between the powerful and less powerful members of society (Rienties & Tempelaar, 2013). Students from Asia are likely to have a cultural predisposition towards high power-distance, and teachers from western universities are likely to have cultural bias towards low power-distance (Rienties & Tempelaar, 2013). People from Asia tend not to express negative messages or contradict other people, especially when they are communicating as a subordinate or with someone older than themselves (Lebra, 1976; Suzuki, 1986 as cited in Taras & Rowney, 2007) Students from Asian cultures appear to be very reserved in in-class communication, from a Western teacher’s perspective (Taras & Rowney, 2007). These culture-related perspective differences, lead to a range of communication styles.

One challenge that may occur in classrooms with diverse communication styles is that teachers or staff may see some students within the classroom as weaker. This may be the result of the teacher’s own upbringing and expected norms in a western university contrasting with a different upbringing and expected norms within the student’s culture. The communication styles of these two cultures can be vastly different, and from a western teacher’s low power-distance perspective, an Asian student may seem like they are uninterested in the subject, or haven’t prepared for a class, while the Asian student may be giving the teacher due respect normally seen in a high power-distance culture (Rienties & Tempelaar, 2013; Taras & Rowney, 2007). An international student’s English language proficiency could also have an effect on how they are perceived by their teachers. When coupled with non-verbal differences students with diverse communication styles may appear weaker members of the classroom (Taras & Rowney, 2007).

Differing levels of English competency, can affect not only the non-native speaker, but can also make it harder for native speakers to understand meaning of verbal communication (Taras & Rowney, 2007)

A second challenge that may occur in classrooms with diverse communication styles is that student team cohesion can be impaired. Both verbal and nonverbal communication barriers can lead to deficiencies in student teams. Differing levels of English competency, can affect not only the non-native speaker, but can also make it harder for native speakers to understand meaning of verbal communication (Taras & Rowney, 2007). Languages that are similar can even be problematic; some words that appear closely related can have completely different meanings (Taras & Rowney, 2007). Nonverbal communication is also important, with expected kinesics and proxemics usually being attributed to effective speakers (Jandt, 2007). Differences in nonverbal behaviour between individuals with different cultures can lead to ambiguous communication, and can even be seen as insulting (Jandt, 2007). The effect on student teams is that the local students may contribute more to group work, or students from other cultural backgrounds may not feel like they can contribute (Taras & Rowney, 2007).

Lastly, a final challenge that may occur in classrooms with diverse communication styles is students from different cultural backgrounds finding it difficult to form friendships. It has been shown that it is important for academic performance and emotional well being that international students have at least some cultural assimilation (Rienties & Tempelaar, 2013). Verbal communication differences, including limited English ability, and nonverbal communication factors, including the use of silence and proxemics, may impact the forming of friendships (Jandt, 2007). Additionally, the perceived status of local students may be higher, due to the faculty staff and the university’s culture reflecting the culture of these students (Cook et al 1991, as citied in Taras & Rowney, 2007). Students from high power-distance cultures may be reluctant to form close friendships with other students with a perceived higher status (Rienties & Tempelaar, 2013). Both local and international students may find it difficult to communicate with each other to form friendships.

With an increase in international students in universities throughout the West there can be increased challenges both for local and international students and staff. Cultural differences in verbal and nonverbal communication methods may make it difficult for international students to adjust to higher education (Jandt, 2007). Three specific communicative challenges that may be faced in a culturally diverse classroom are staff members could see international students as weaker, the possible impairment of student team cohesion and possible difficulties for international and local students forming friendships with each other. Differences in verbal and nonverbal communication, related to cultural differences, can be a serious issue for staff and students at western tertiary institutions.


Jandt, F. (2007). Nonverbal communication. In An introduction to intercultural communication: Identities in a global community (5th ed). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Rienties, B., & Tempelaar, D. (2013). The role of cultural dimensions of international and Dutch students on academic and social integration and academic performance in the Netherlands. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 37(2), 188–201. doi:10.1016/j.ijintrel.2012.11.004

Taras, V., & Rowney, J. (2007). Effects of cultural diversity on in-class communication and student project team dynamics: Creating synergy in the diverse classroom. International Studies in Educational Administration, 35(2), 66–81.

This essay was completed as part of an Undergraduate Writing Course at AUT

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