Intercultural Communication and Staff in Tourism


Globalization has presented a new twist in the tourism sector. Many problems have emerged between tourists and their host communities in many aspects. The problem emanates from the different cultural backgrounds of the hosts and the tourists. According to Richardson (2001), many of these problems occur because researchers in the tourism sector often base their research on the assumption that to get the best communication interlinks between these groups can be achieved through the establishment of common understanding. However, as it has been revealed in the latest studies, the first and best approach to solving the intercultural communication barrier in the tourism industry is to acknowledge that there are cultural differences between the tourists and the hosts (Singer, 1998; Samovar, 1999). It is through this that both parties are able to offer their appreciation and value of their differences in terms of culture. Moreover, it is the experience of cultural differences that motivates one to travel from one place to another to enjoy the differences (Friedman, 1994, p. 211). This paper presents and analyzes information on the intercultural differences the employees in the tourism sector experience in their day-to-day contacts with international tourists. It is noted that intercultural communication may develop into serious problems when there is a higher degree of cultural differences between employees of the tourism industry and the tourists.

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Procedure for the Interview

The interview was set at the Bournemouth Resort, located in the Cosmopolitan town of Bournemouth. The arrangements were completed after the resort management gave permission to three employees following my written request a month prior to the interview date. The three employees I managed to engage in the interview were given permission by the management hence took their time to give insightful information on what intercultural barriers they experienced in their line of duty. To get adequate data and accurate individual opinions, the interviewees were engaged in a discussion one by one at separate times.

The questions were systematic, beginning from their personal information like the reason why they chose to work in the tourism industry and for how long she has been staying in the industry. Many questions concentrated on how they have managed to navigate the challenges that come with intercultural misunderstanding in the workplace. Even though most of the information in the interview was instinctively guided in my mind, I found the interview guide important in offering guidance on the flow of questions in a systematic manner. This was important in restructuring and redirecting the respondents whenever they went off the track. It helped to make the information flow stay within the context of intercultural differences and how to mitigate the problems that come with its challenges. It is important to note that the guide was not restrictive to the questions I asked but was only used as a guide as such.

The first respondent was a 37-year old junior employee of British origin. According to him, the discontent associated with foreign employees senior managers, and their junior staffs are what destroy the communication line. He identifies that it is quite difficult to communicate for a long time with their foreign counterparts, especially the Asian employees as they seem to mean different things in the spoken words. He states that while they (British) prefer direct answers to questions, whether it’s no or yes to a request, their Asian counterparts and even tourists would prefer indirect answers as a way of showing politeness.

The second respondent was another manager of Asian origin, 39-year old Japanese who has worked in this resort for seven years. She was brought in as an expatriate in the tourism industry. He identifies a lack of openness among his British counterparts in group discussions. He states that while it is important and more productive to do things in groups, his British counterparts prefer an individualistic approach to solving issues and carrying out duties. This sometimes upsets her as according to her cultural background; group works are more encouraged and people avoid seeking individual accolades in favor of group efforts.

The last respondent was one of the unit managers at the resort. He is a 48-year-old German who has worked at the resort for nine years. According to him, the most common mistake he has realized during his stay as a worker at the resort is that people tend to treat Germans as people with the same unified form of cultural backgrounds. This is often not right as the historical Berlin Wall that separated East from the West had a far much cultural impact that has not faded to date.

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Language Barrier

The first interview revealed several issues related to language barriers that occur from time to time. In fact, the respondent stated that the first problem that normally occurs at the workplace is the language barriers between employees themselves. In most cases, senior managers are foreign expatriates who have to rely on other junior managers. The junior staff is mostly drawn from the host country. This situation makes it difficult to solve a problem that may arise from the field as employees do not understand each other’s cultural needs. He acknowledged that the main problem emanates from the fact that employees in the tourism industry are drawn from the international community. He also states that in practice, it becomes difficult to consult foreign employees on matters of intercultural barriers, considering the fact they normally consider themselves to have experienced more than their juniors. That there is always the feeling of “us against them”, consequently causing communication barriers within the communication channel. This may make one group withhold critical information from another, hence endanger the success of the organization (Davies, 1990 Baumann, 1999). Furthermore, the Asians portray a sign of dishonesty when they avoid giving direct answers to questions.

Since the international involvement of many regional branch offices of tourism organizations is limited to the regional offices, most of the firms do not find it necessary to engage their employees in intercultural education outside their respective regional branches. Moreover, he argued that intercultural awareness is still rampantly limited in the international context.

He observed that attitude towards intercultural understanding and language competency will highly depend on the criteria the company uses to recruit and the kind of staffing they adopt. In other words, staffing has a direct impact on intercultural awareness.

The Culture and Traditions

According to the respondent of Japanese origin, culture and traditions are parts and parcel of life and no person can live without them. Understanding cultural values and moral bring people together in unity. Expressions of culture in the way tourists communicate sometimes complicate issues of understanding culture. For example, this respondent has learned that tourists from English-speaking countries, mostly in Europe like giving short conventional answers to any form of inquiry. They talk less openly about their feelings. This is in contrast to the Asian cultures, where people believe that it sounds politer to divulge some of the personal information in the process of communication. Among the Muslim tourists serving food and water are considered to be the most virtuous deeds, even if they have paid for everything. To acknowledge their appreciation to the person who has served the food, they prefer to say ‘thank you’ after every service. This sometimes sounds ridiculous to the English speakers who would rather keep quiet than express themselves as they consider the service their rightful need that they have.

Speech and meaning of words

The other issue that has been noted is the problem of speech and the meaning of words as spoken by different ethnic groups from various parts of the world. Respondents of German origin highlighted the need to improve the self-perception of people’s own world and adjust to the meaning of words and speech from different groups. He highlighted the case of German tourists, whose use of speech and application of certain words are different and depend on which part of the country one is from (East or West Germany). In this dimension, the belief is that all Germans share the same understanding in the context of intercultural communication. However, this is not the case and people normally find it difficult to understand that these people, despite coming from the same country and belonging to the same nationality, have some differences in the way they communicate matters. This is usually expressed in the difference in dialect and how the speakers express their identity.

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Language Barrier and decision-making process

Effective communication demands that the parties do not withhold information from each other. While employees from the Asian community regard sharing of a lot of information with their workmates, English workers prefer withholding much of the personal information. This may affect the overall communication as their Asian counterparts will feel betrayed in the communication process when they give a lot of information with no return of the same. According to Hofstede (1984, cited in Hannerz, 2002, p.67), the theory of effective group decision-making helps people to focus on the effective outcome of initiatives at the workplace. Organizations require that group decision-making takes place frequently, especially in matters that involve organizational welfare (Asante & Gudykunst, 1989; Friedman, 1994). However, the process of such decision-making may be jeopardized by language barriers that exist between individual employees (Applegate & Sypher, 1983). In many situations, employees in the tourism industry assume that when they are able to speak the same language, then they are able to understand each other in almost all aspects of communication. However, studies show that the fact that people are able to speak the same language does not make them uniform in intercultural communication techniques (Gudykunst & Kim, 2004; Featherstone, 2000). This has been demonstrated by the German employees’ case. It may be deceptive to assume that employees from the same country, who also speak the same language, would be able to communicate effectively. In fact, the fact that these people may be speaking the same language may make it difficult to make any adjustment in the communication process harder as some of the differences and similarities may not be real as they tend to imagine them. Stevenson (2002) notes that when two different people encounter one another, one critical issue arises: they tend to think differently and have different versions of whatever situation presents itself.

To adjust to the proper group decision-making process, Stevenson & Theobald (2000) advise that when we experience differences between ourselves and our colleagues, it is important we re-valuate ourselves and devise a strategy that will lessen any misunderstanding. Yoshikawa (1997) on the other states re-evaluation may help the communicating parties talk less to avoid any possible awkward occurrence as a result of communication breakdown. However, Knapp, Enninger & Knapp-Potthoff (1997) disagree and say that talking less in the hospitality industry may not be the way to lessen possible communication breakdowns. He states even taking less is communication in itself and may make the other party feel awkward. They, therefore, state that to understand the issues of intercultural miscommunication, it is important for people to analyze where there is a disconnect in the communication process and work towards closing on the differences.

The Conflicts of Culture and beliefs

Cultural conflicts between employees and tourists frequently occur in their day-to-day life. The differences only emerge in how employees manage to handle their attitude towards intercultural understanding and language competency (Martin & Nakayama, 2000). For instance, while one employee can embrace the cultural beliefs of other people from various backgrounds through self-assessment of cultural awareness, his or her colleague may run short of the necessary skills or may not express willingness to learn and accept. This was vividly expressed by one employee respondent who narrated his ordeal with a Malay Muslim family from the United States.

The respondent acknowledged that it is possible to understand how some cultures are distinct and the understanding of the tourists’ cultural orientation is one major step towards the achievement of goals of intercultural awareness. According to the respondent, he expected the family to behave in the ‘American way’ considering the fact that they had lived in America for over 30 years. However, this was not the case as the family still had large elements of Asian origin. He acknowledges that this family demonstrated a lot of Malay Muslim cultural background that he did not know how to handle when he was given full responsibility to manage their one-month vacation at the resort. He narrates how this family was always eager to share their thoughts and traditional beliefs with him, yet he found that a little bit naïve. In this case, this family expressed their openness in everything from work to personal lives, while the employee (respondent) was somewhat reserved in expressing many of his personal information in return to acknowledge their generosity.

Communication as a tool of interaction is embedded in the cultural aspects of the people (Brislin, 1996, p.3). In other words, people may not understand communication take place within a culture or cultures if they “don’t understand the cultural and ethnographic factors that are involved in the process” (Brislin, 1996, p.3). In this case, it is first necessary to understand the cultural background of the people, their ethnographic orientation and beliefs that would define their behaviors. Razack (1998), however, states that cultural awareness is not all about knowing the culture and beliefs of the people you interact with but also engaging in self-awareness in terms of behaviors and attitudes towards specific issues. For example, different cultures combined together for a long period of time may be considered to have reached a middle ground in terms of cultural unity. However, this example does not represent the belief. Furthermore, it is suggested that cultural identity hugely rely on the historical background of the people (Tanno & González, 1998).

The Culture and Traditions

Culture and tradition are part and parcel of life and no person can live without them (Hall, 1999; Hannerz, 2002). When employees strive to understand the culture and values of tourists from various backgrounds, a form of unity may be developed between the parties (Hall & Gay, 1996). However, the way diverse groups express their culture may complicate the communication process sometimes complicate issues of understanding culture. Tourists from English-speaking countries prefer to give short conventional answers to any form of inquiry that they get from tourists. They talk less openly about their feelings and this mostly does not go down well with mainly Asian tourists. Basically, Asian cultures are represented by the belief that it sounds politer to divulge some of the personal information in the process of communication. As it was also indicated earlier, among the Muslim tourists, serving food and water is considered to be the most virtuous deed.

The position of Experience Theory

In this perspective, it is important to understand that successful communication between groups will depend on the experience of the individual employee. The position of experience theory states that all interpretations within the process of communication are lined within individual experiences that employees have gone through. According to one respondent, experience may be subjective but all in all, it purely relates to the social position of the individual. In this case, GGergen (1995) represents a position that understanding a communicating partner is central to effective intercultural communication. He explains that it is important to acknowledge that communicating partners may be having in the world of intercultural communication. In such a case, it is nearly impossible to ignore a person’s experience in the process of communication since it has historically presented itself as a very important intercultural communication (Jandt, 1995 Jensen, 1997).

The position of experience theory acknowledges that experience is based on the understanding of an individual’s ability to interpret the communication lines (Asante & Gudykunst, 1999). This is linked to the person’s understanding of the world in line with experience gained over time within his or her vantage point of view. As concerns to intercultural communication, it simply refers to the fact that one cannot look at the cultural differences as the only criteria to interpret our existence but we have to look beyond what we can visibly see in the wider context of culture (Anderson, 1983). To understand and narrow the gap between the culturally different groups, the communicating parties need to draw a parallel for the difference between cultural prejudice and respect each other’s culture (Anderson, 1983).

The specific roles of each staff member in the hospitality industry are to engage in the process of cultural understanding irrespective of their position. As demonstrated by the Malay Muslim tourist family, every community has a structure and each structure is a culmination of the historical aspect of the community. It, therefore, means an assumption that people can be can completely adopt a new environment and ignore the historical practices as reflected in their cultural past may be wrong in many aspects of intercultural communication.


In conclusion, it can be acknowledged that language is used both consciously and subconsciously as both parties are not able to control all aspects of communication. Cultural identity can therefore be applied in the professional practice by individual employees and groups. In this case, one should strive to be self-conscious of others’ cultural identity as well as of that of their own.

In line with the employee’s professional practices, they must identify with their professional works to develop their interest as well as build their personal relationships with tourists despite the diversity. The global change has evidently created a scenario where the need to develop intercultural communication skills for all employees is paramount. This is because globalization has led to the unification of language in the global world. People of the world are able to multiple languages. Although this may present a good trend, it’s creating another dilemma for hospitality industry employees who normally assume that speaking a common language is all it takes to understand tourists’ intercultural variance. In a practical sense as illustrated in this study, this is usually not the case as many people confuse language to complete intercultural communication. This is why it is important for organizations, particularly those in the hospitality industry to facilitate their employees’ intercultural communication skill acquisition. If this initiative is facilitated, the individual employees in this sector need to make efforts to avoid cultural prejudice in their line of duty.

Reference List

Anderson, B. (1983), Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London. Verso.

Applegate, J., & Sypher, H. (1983), Intercultural Communication Theory – Current Perspectives. Beverly Hills: Sage.

Asante, M. K., & Gudykunst, W.B. (1999), Handbook of International and Intercultural Communication, Newbury Park: Sage.

Baumann, G. (1999), The Multicultural Riddle – Rethinking National, Ethnic, and Religious Identities. New York. Routledge.

Brislin, R. (1996), Intercultural interactions – A practical guide. Crosscultural Research and methodology series. Beverly Hills. Sage.

Davies, B. (1990), Positioning: The Discursive Production of Selves. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, vol. 20, no. 1.

Denzin,K, & Lincoln YS. Handbook of Qualitative Research. London. Sage Publications, 2000.

Gudykunst, W. B. & Kim, Y. (2004), Communication with strangers. An approach to intercultural communication. New York. Random House.

Featherstone, M. (2000), Global Culture. An Introduction. Journal of Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 7, p. 1-14.

Friedman, J. (1994), Cultural Identity and Global Process. London: Sage.

GGergen, J. (1995), The Social Constructionist Movement in Modern Psychology. American Psychologist, vol. 40, no. 3.

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Hall, S., & Gay, P. (1996), Questions of Cultural Identity. London: Sage.

Hannerz, U. (2002), Cultural Complexity – Studies in the Social Organization of Meaning. New York: Columbia University Press.

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Knapp, K., Enninger, W. & Knapp-Potthoff, A. (1997), Analyzing Intercultural Communication. Berlin. Mouton de Gruyter.

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Appendix 1: Research Question: “What are the intercultural communication issues that normally arise in the hospitality industry?”

  1. What’s your country of origin and for how long have stayed in your current place or country?
  2. For the period that you have lived and worked at the resort, what intercultural issues have you come across? (Please, highlight the incident)
  3. Do you face some cultural challenges, living here?
  4. If yes for (iii) above, how do you go about the problem, especially when cultural conflict occurs between you and your hosts?
  5. Do you maintain the traditions of your native country in this environment of diversity?
  6. Do other employees not mind your personal style of communication?
  7. How do you relate within and outside your place of work?
  8. Have you participated in some of the traditional holidays?
  9. Do you think that your culture is better than other people from other regions?

Appendix 2 (a): Verbatim from a 37-year old English junior staff

“I have been working in this resort for the past five years. I am British born and all my life has been spent nowhere else apart from this country. There is a lot of cultural misunderstanding between them (local employees) and the foreign expatriates,” he said.

“My colleague, a fellow Briton, proposed that we be given some time off every morning to have a fellowship together as employees. Because we had discussed the issue before we came for this meeting, everybody was in agreement that the fellowship takes 30 minutes, from 8.00 to 8.30. The boss nodded as if to show agreement and acceptance without uttering a word and therefore everybody believed that the deal was sealed. When the new week began, all system was set to go and all members who were willing to attend the fellowship were there as early as 7.00 am to begin. Because they (managers) arrive at work from 8.00, the manager was shocked to find employees gathering in one of the meeting rooms to begin the fellowship when he arrived. He ordered the convener of the meeting to his office and was not ready to listen to any explanation to justify everything. This incident surprised everybody and he denied ever giving an ok to such proposal.”

Appendix 2(b): Verbatim from a 39-year old lady manager of Japanese origin

“I have worked in this resort for seven years. I moved here with my family after completing my schooling in the United States. Though my family members lived in Japan, I only spent the early years of my life in the country where I manage to complete my elementary education. My high school and university education were completed in the United States and later Britain. When I got the job offer to work in this resort, I moved all my family members here with me as I could not afford to leave them behind yet I am the firstborn who is expected to take care of them in their sunset days. I have not found it easy since my arrival. British society is quite individualistic. This is quite difficult especially when I deal with junior staff who work towards individual accolades rather than group efforts. In my cultural background, people prefer group works and this is so beneficial in accomplishing tasks that may seem overwhelming to one person.”

“A family of Malay Muslim family arrived here for a one-month vacation. The entire extended family was here. Many of my colleagues of British origin could not understand the rationale of their approach to communication. They found it ridiculous that every time they received services from any staff, they say ‘thank you’ and even offering them food or something in return. They always wanted staff who served them to eat with them and any decline was taken negatively. This was really challenging as they did not understand how every staff member, they welcome on their dining table declined the offer. They felt that this was not kind.”

Appendix 2(c)

“I came here as an employee of this resort in the year 2001. That means I have been here for the last 9 years. My first years were hectic as whenever there were German tourists expected, I was the one to be given the responsibility of managing their stay. The assumption was that I had all the knowledge and language to communicate with ‘my people’. Nobody wants to listen when I tell them (colleagues) that I am from East Germany, and that we are different in many aspects from West Germans. While times some take this negatively as racism, the reality is the cultural difference is rampantly high in the country. In East Germany, marriage institutions are weaker and people tend to adopt the fast life of single parenthood. This is opposed to West Germans who highly regard family and marriage institutions,” He said.

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