Saudi Arabia: Intercultural Willingness to Communicate

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Effective inter and cross-cultural communication is largely dependent on language. Language provides a platform for people from different cultures to communicate meaningfully with one another. Language, as used in the context of communication, is representative of the cultural and social identity of the people. Saudi Arabia citizens and citizens from other countries that form the Council for the Arab States of the Gulf use the Arabic language as their main language (Santos, & Rozier, 2007, p. 22). However, since most visitors to Saudi Arabia primarily use English, the locals face challenges in the inter-cultural communication with the visitors. The result of this study generates three themes viz. high intercultural willingness to communicate among the Saudi citizens, challenges of ethnocentrism, and linguistic differences.

Besides the linguistic differences, socio-cultural differences make natives visitors feel uncomfortable communicating with the Western visitors (Gudykunst, & Kin, 1992, p. 143). This further affects intercultural communication involving the Saudis and visitors despite the Saudi’s willingness to communicate with the visitors. The communication barriers have far-reaching consequences on international business organizations operating in Saudi Arabia. This study explored the intercultural willingness to communicate (IWTC), language, and ethnocentrism as barriers to inter-communication between Saudi natives and visitors of other cultures. The results from this study demonstrate that the Saudi’s have a high inter-cultural willingness to communicate (IWTC). However, the language barrier and ethnocentrism, affect effective communication between the Saudi citizens and foreign nationals visiting Saudi Arabia as tourists or for business.

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The Intercultural Willingness to Communicate (IWTC)

In this study, the results of GENE mean score (ethnocentrism) and IWTC from three Saudi cities of Dammam, Jeddah, and Riyadh with respect to intercultural communication with international visitors indicate that Saudis have a high IWTC and low levels of ethnocentrism (GENE), a barrier to effective intercultural communication. Overall, the willingness to communicate among male Saudi citizens is high relative to female Saudi citizens. The female’s average GENE score in the three Saudi cities was 25.3 compared to that of male citizens of 23.3. Additionally, the average IWTC score for male Saudi citizens in the three cities was higher at 321.5 compared to females at 258.1. Overall, the high IWTC scores imply that the Saudi citizens are likely to express enthusiasm and hospitality to international visitors despite the cultural and social differences that may exist (Macintyre et al, 2003, p. 137).

Usually, people have a natural tendency to restrain from intercultural communication due to the cultural differences. Thus, the willingness to communicate is an appreciable behaviour that is essential in establishing and strengthening interrelationships between people of different cultures. Accordingly, Saudi’s high willingness to communicate with visitors enables them to develop healthy relationships with visitors from foreign countries. Additionally, the willingness to communicate allows Saudis to embrace other cultures and blend well in diverse international social settings (Balabanis et al, 2001, p. 157). Conversely, the unwillingness to communicate arises from fear or anxiety over the communication expectations or authentication of another individual or people. Communication apprehension (CA) is connected to a low sense of esteem or unfavorable opinion from the majority of people of a particular cultural group. High CA in students is attributed to high rates of dropouts, general lower GPA in college, and decreased ability to recall in international students (Hackman & Barthel-Hackman, 1993, p.86). Therefore, the high willingness to communicate among Saudi citizens means that Saudi students studying abroad are able to interact well with people of different cultures or races within and outside academic settings.

In the present study, the high degrees of intra-cultural WTC have been sawn not to necessarily transform into high degrees of IWTC. This outcome implies that intra-cultural WTC and IWTC are not closely associated. According to Kassing (1996, p. 68), differentiating between the two structures encourages the possibility that individuals who readily commence communication with members of their own group, society, and/or culture may not necessarily be enthusiastic to do so in intercultural communications contexts. The intercultural communication in the public survey indicated that Riyadh citizens, especially female citizens, have had a positive experience communicating with travellers from other cultures in public areas. The results also indicate that Riyadh citizens “sometimes” engage in a public conversation with someone from a different culture. Similarly, citizens of Jeddah and Dammam have had a positive experience interacting with people with diverse cultural backgrounds.

The results demonstrate that Saudi citizens desire to communicate with their visitors who visit them. In contrast, citizens who are intra-cultural can only communicate or associate with individuals from or her cultural or social background. This means that this citizen may not freely associate or communicate with visitors from foreign countries because of fear (Gudykunst, & Kim, 1992, p. 145). On the other hand, a Saudi citizen with intercultural willingness to communicate can associate well with visitors from different parts of the world. In this way, he or she can make many friends from foreign countries because he or she is culturally competent. However, though the Saudi citizens have a high intercultural willingness to communicate with people from other cultures, the results showed that they do not consider intercultural willingness to communicate integral in their lives and their inter-cultural relationships (Schervish, 1995, p. 119).

The social aspects and cross-cultural competency shape the intercultural willingness to communicate with the visitors (Hackman & Barthel-Hackman, 1993, p. 86). Cross-cultural competency is achieved through language and exposure to specified aspects of the social life of the foreign culture (Bradford, Allen, & Beisser, 2000, p. 29). Misunderstanding can breed fear, which affects the intercultural willingness to communicate. According to Bradford et al, low communication comprehension and fear sets in when people fail to understand the cultural constructs of other people (2000, p. 32). Additionally, limited exposure to foreign cultures can be a barrier to effective intercultural communication and consequently result in low communication comprehension. However, the results show that the Saudi citizens have a high intercultural willingness to communicate, which implies that they have exposure and are familiar with many world cultures (Lin, Rancer, & Lim, 2003, p. 121). This helps them to develop the intercultural willingness and attain effective communication comprehension, which is essential in developing and strengthening relationships with visitors from foreign countries.


Neuliep (2002, p.208) defines ethnocentrism as the mode of criticizing another person or other people with reference to their lifestyles, social life, backgrounds, culture and race from one’s cultural perspective. Ethnocentric individuals may not readily socialize or communicate with people from other cultures as they view their culture as superior to other cultures, in terms of competency or background. Individuals who practice ethnocentrism believe that their culture can serve as an excellent model for other cultures (Neuliep, Chaudoir, & McCroskey, 2001, p.138). Among the Saudi citizens, culture is integral to their daily lives. Similarly, other people value their cultures as a motivation for their behaviour and cultural identity. This means that every person views another culture from his or her cultural perspective (Lee, 1994, p.154) and believes that his or her culture, by comparison, is the best among all the others.

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In Riyadh, the GENE (ethnocentrism) mean score for male Saudi citizens was 24.24, slightly higher compared to that of female citizens. Overall, the citizens in Riyadh exhibit a relatively low level of ethnocentrism towards international visitors. In contrast, the GENE mean score for female citizens was higher compared to male GENE mean score (27.36 versus 21.95 for female and male citizens respectively). This implies that females in Jeddah are more ethnocentric compared to Riyadh female citizens despite their high levels of intercultural willingness to communicate. In Dammam, again the females’ ethnocentrism score was higher than that of males. Overall, Saudi males exhibit are less ethnocentric compared to female citizens in the three Saudi cities. The city of Jeddah has the highest average ethnocentrism score (male and female) at 24.6 while Riyadh has the lowest (23.3).

Ethnocentrism is displayed in behaviours and attitudes towards people from other cultures. In this respect, ethnocentric people perform normal activities in the context of their culture without recognizing the interests or values of the other cultures (Barraclough, Christophel, & McCroskey, 1988, p. 112). This can be in the form of cultural stereotypes or chauvinism, which blocks particular social or cultural groups from engaging fully in cultural practices, in their society (Brown, 2000, p.755). From this perspective, though the Saudi citizens exhibit a high intercultural willingness to communicate with people from other cultures, their ethnocentrism deters effective communication with foreign nationals. In particular, the city of Jeddah and Dammam show high levels of ethnocentrism towards foreign cultures (24.6 and 25.3 respectively).

The Saudi ethnocentrism can be attributed to intra-cultural practices. According to Gudykunst and Kim (1992, p. 144), ethnocentric notions cannot allow individuals to accept international visitors with a different cultural or racial background. These notions instead foster intra-cultural willingness to communicate only with people of similar culture. This implies that for the Saudis to possess the intercultural willingness to communicate, they need to practice zero ethnocentrism, which means that they should not establish boundaries to keep away the international visitors; they should welcome them and embrace them (Matveev, 2004, p. 57). Indeed, the high IWTC scores in the three cities explain the Saudis’ hospitality and desire to communicate with people from different cultures. However, the ethnocentric (GENE) scores indicate a tendency towards intra-cultural communication, as opposed to intercultural communication with foreign visitors.

Cultural stereotypes often discourage intercultural communication. They instead promote intra-cultural and group homogeneity and cultural beliefs among the youth and adults (Kassing, 1996, p.67) while preventing change in fundamental cultural issues. In this regard, the ethnocentrism results indicate that Saudis cannot readily embrace changes in particular cultural issues to accommodate a foreign culture as this will affect their cultural homogeneity. In contrast, the high IWTC results imply that the Saudis possess a high communication comprehension. Low IWTC means that communication comprehension is scarce (Barraclough, Christophel, & McCroskey, 1988, p. 108). Nonetheless, in Saudi, several adolescents develop without understanding or being aware of other cultural groups because they are taught everything using their culture, which makes them largely insensitive to other cultures. This makes it increasingly difficult for Saudi adults to embrace other cultural groups as they are deeply rooted in their own culture.

Although the Saudis possess the desire to communicate with international visitors, they cannot cope with other cultures, as they cannot readily embrace them. Instead, ethnocentric values are enhanced resulting to misconceptions and racist attitudes despite their high IWTC values (Arasaratnam & May, 2009). One approach essential in eliminating ethnocentrism is the practice of multiculturalism by the young people (Myers & Boothe, 2000, p. 231). Therefore, in order for the Saudi citizens especially the adolescents to communicate effectively with international visitors and create friendships, they need to practice multiculturalism. In this way, they will be able to depict the different aspects of the other cultures positively. Additionally, the IWTC is another noteworthy approach of minimizing ethnocentrism and increasing self-awareness especially among Saudi students (Kim, 1991, p. 118).

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The results of this study demonstrate that linguistic differences significantly influence intercultural communication in Saudi Arabia. Arabic is the official language spoken by the Saudis. English is not widely spoken in the country; only employees of international business organizations communicate in English. This presents a communication barrier since the Saudi Arabians cannot communicate to these visitors in Arabic, as English is the official global business language (Myers & Boothe, 2000, p. 233). Accordingly, in the three cities surveyed, the citizens “sometimes” spoke to people from different cultures in public with the male citizens unwilling to befriend an individual from a different culture. For instance in Riyadh, despite both male and female citizens having a positive experience with people from different cultures, they nonetheless, experience linguistic difficulties in speaking with international visitors.

In contrast, Jeddah citizens report less difficulty in speaking with visitors from other cultures though the male citizens are less likely to befriend a visitor from a different culture. On the other hand, Dammam male citizens are more likely to befriend a visitor with a different cultural background compared to male citizens from the other two cities. The low likelihood that a Saudi citizen will speak let alone befriend a visitor with a different cultural background, despite the high IWTC, is mainly due to linguistic differences that act as a barrier to verbal communication.

Moreover, the results of the survey from the three cities demonstrate that language is the greatest challenge to effective communication involving the Saudis and foreign nationals. In all the three cities, the citizens report that they are unlikely to communicate with foreigners in a foreign language even if they know the language. Instead, the citizens contend that visitors should learn to communicate in Arabic to facilitate intercultural communication. This implies that besides linguistic differences being a barrier, preference for Arabic as a primary language of communication takes precedence.

The IWTC results from the three cities indicate that Saudi citizens possess the desire to communicate with visitors from different parts of the world. However, language barrier is a serious challenge of effective intercultural communication. In light of this, the Saudi government is undertaking various initiatives to promote English and consequently foster intercultural communication. Saudi schools currently teach English as a second language after Arabic (Penington & Wildermuth, 2005, p.168). Additionally, other international bodies are also trying to promote English use in corporate and workplace settings because they recognize the desire and willingness of Saudi citizens to communicate to their visitors hence the supportive measures (Canty, 2010).


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