Miscommunication Issues Due to Cultural Gaps in Instant Messaging


The advent of the internet made communication so convenient – numerous platforms and applications now exist to connect people that are thousands of miles apart. Though communication channels have become streamlined and standardized, cross-cultural communication in professional and academic situations still proves to be a challenge, especially when it comes to chat programs and instant messaging services.

We conducted a survey called The Challenges of Working in Virtual Teams and and found 87% of respondents noted that at least 25% of their productivity depended upon working virtually and 61% of respondents reported virtual work with individuals based both domestically and internationally. The challenge that globally dispersed, virtual teams have in communicating their ideas is that their members often come from different cultural backgrounds.

Cultural differences hinder comprehension and language barriers make communicating even more problematic. Chat programs and instant messaging are communication technologies that can ease this kind of communication stress. Based on The Challenges of Working in Virtual Teams, of those who work virtually, 28% reported using email, 19% instant messaging and 7% text messaging (SMS) – all written forms of virtual communication.

However, according to the survey, these mediums also increase the chance of miscommunication due to cultural gaps. The greatest personal challenges respondents faced were an inability to read non‐verbal cues (88%), difficulty establishing rapport and trust (75%), absence of collegiality (70%), difficulty seeing the whole picture (65%),reliance on email and telephone (57%), and a sense of isolation (47%).

Na Li, a doctoral candidate at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology, and her co-author Mary Beth Rosson have been investigating how language barriers and other cultural factors cause communication failures within small groups. In their study, “At a Different Tempo: What Goes Wrong in Online Cross-Cultural Group Chat?”, Li and Rosson have found that working in small cross-cultural groups, instant messaging and chat tools are the preferred method of communication by non-native English speakers. Why? They feel it is time effective and it eases the social pressures typical of face-to-face interaction.

The researchers discovered that even though chat communication methods are preferred, they hinder non-native English speakers’ ability to be fully active in a group setting because they tend to “…adopt follower rather than leader roles, have their ideas ignored by other group members and report lower satisfaction with the overall experience. In addition, non-native speakers find it difficult to follow turns in the conversation, particularly when there are two or three conversations occurring simultaneously.”

Is there a way to improve the effectiveness of instant messaging for non-native speakers? Li and Rosson learned that the concerns of non-native speakers included “language fluency issues, an impaired turn-taking system and a slow-down in group process”. To ameliorate these impediments, their research proposes a mechanism for thread control in chat environments that supports turn-taking while minimally affecting the flow of conversation. They envision creating a side bar alongside the chat window in which users can ask questions about earlier topics of conversation and enter responses right beside it (perhaps in a horizontal line that connects to the respective thread or line in the conversation). User responses can be stacked in a side pane, similar to a threaded chat.

Do you think this solution would be effective? What have your experiences been communicating virtually across cultures? Would this make it more confusing to follow a chat conversation?