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Personal, Physical and Semantic Barriers to Effective Communication

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In order to have relationships, whether they are for business, education or our personal lives, we need to communicate effectively with others. Sometimes there are barriers that prevent us from receiving messages or getting our own messages across. We communicate differently depending on whether we're talking with one individual or a group, and whether the encounters are face-to-face or via technology. Communicating effectively requires more than mere words. When speaking, we use facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice to help get our message across. In written communications, we have to be particularly careful of how we use words since we can't provide the same visual cues as when we're talking aloud. Although there are a number of barriers to effective communication, there are also many good strategies available to overcome them.

Personal Barriers to Communication

Your age and where you come from have a lot to do with how you communicate with others. Personal barriers to communication are often attitudes that can be changed. For instance, multiple generations sometimes hold stereotypes about one another. Older people may call call younger people "slackers," while youth might label members of an older generation "out of touch." Treating each person as an individual instead of making assumptions about a group can help break down the age barrier.

Your physical or emotional state at a given point in time can affect the way you send or receive communications. If you're tired or unwell, you may have trouble organizing your thoughts for an effective message, whether spoken or written. If you're angry or sad, you may have difficulty expressing yourself properly or processing the words of others.

Cultural barriers can be trickier, but certainly not impossible to overcome. For example, if you're planning to travel to a country where another language is spoken, learn a little of the language before your trip. Many public libraries have language-learning videos and audio books that you can borrow, and there are a number of free and low-cost online resources as well. In the workplace, learn a few key phrases that can help you communicate with co-workers. Most of the time, they will be happy to help you learn their language as you help them learn yours. If you're an employer and you have a number of employees who don't speak the primary language, consider hiring translators or language tutors, even if only part-time.

In American culture, it's not only acceptable to look someone in the eye when speaking, it is considered rude if you fail to do so. People may perceive you as dishonest or having something to hide. For people from other cultures, it may be considered more polite to avoid eye contact. When communicating with people whose background is different from yours, you can't assume the rules of communication are the same. A good book on cultural differences is one by Terry Morrison and Wayne A. Conaway, called Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More Than 60 Countries. You don't have to be a business traveler to benefit from the information in this book.

Physical Barriers

Suppose you meet a friend while walking down the street. If it's a beautiful day, it's likely that you will stop and chat for a few minutes. However, if it's raining and the wind is turning your umbrellas inside out, you probably won't make time for more than a brief exchange. You've encountered an environmental barrier, a type of physical barrier to communication.

Another physical barrier is distance. You might work for a company that has employees all over the country, or even all over the world. It is not possible to bring people together in one room to discuss a project. Instead of face-to-face communication, workers have had to rely on phone calls and emails. As video conferencing becomes more reliable and easier to use, it has helped bridged the distance between collaborators in business and online education. Families and friends separated by miles can enjoy conversations through apps such as Skype and FaceTime.

Technology can enhance communications, but only if all the people involved understand it and know how to use it. SMS language, or textspeak, is a type of slang that uses phonetic spellings and acronyms, usually in communications on mobile devices. The question "R u home?" is readily understandable; ROTFL ("rolling on the floor laughing") is meaningless to someone unfamiliar with text speak. The use of devices can also put up a physical barrier. Today's teenagers have grown up with mobile devices and find them easy to use. Grandparents and great-grandparents, on the other hand, may have a learning

Semantic Barriers

Semantics has to do with the meanings behind the words we speak. Take the word "fellow" for example. The old tune, "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" is traditionally sung to celebrate someone who is considered a good person. A fellow traveler, on the other hand, is someone you may not know at all; she may be someone in the seat next to you when you're riding the subway. A research fellow is a an advanced degree who has received funding to conduct studies in a specific field of expertise. In all three instances, the word, "fellow" is the same word, but with very different meanings. You have to understand the context, or the rest of the words in the sentence, to know what kind of fellow is intended.

Age can contribute to semantic barriers. Slang is a good example, because it tends to change rapidly. Young people often abandon slang terms, once their parents adopt them, and using those words become commonplace. No one has said "groovy" for a long time, but in the 1960s, it was the ultimate compliment. There can be regional differences, too, in the way words are used. The word "wicked" is used to describe someone bad or evil -- unless you're in Boston, where "wicked awesome" is high praise, indeed.

Semantic barriers are often greater when it's not possible to communicate face-to-face. Tone of voice and body language play an important part in our communications with one another. Gestures and facial expressions cannot be translated to an email or text. Minutes, hours or even days can pass between an electronic communication and a response. Hasty responses can also be a problem, particularly when a writer is angry and has not thought through the communication. Humor and sarcasm do not always translate well to electronic communications, and it can be too easy to offend or be misunderstood.

Becoming an Effective Communicator

Poor communications skills can be personal barriers to success, but good skills build relationships in business, in school and with friends and family. College courses, as well as non-credit courses, organizations such as Toastmasters, YouTube videos and self-help books can help you build the skills you need to communicate effectively.


Denise Dayton is a a freelance writer who specializes in business, education and technology. She has written for, Library Journal, The Searcher, Bureau of Education and Research, and corporate clients.

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