We don’t really know what someone is
People are people – how many times have you heard, or said this?
Simply being human — having common needs for food, water, shelter, health, safety – makes EVERYONE alike — and communication easy, right? Not so fast.
When it comes to intercultural communication, biological commonalities are not helpful. Communication is about exchanging ideas and information, and finding ways to work together.
We are all culture bound and culturally modified. Each person’s culture is right and natural to them. The problem comes when you forget that and use your cultural lens. This bias prevents you from really seeing and being open-minded. It cuts you off – you observe, evaluate and judge all without even thinking about it. Assuming similarities where they don’t exist results in developing preconceptions and stereotypes. While stereotypes help to make the unknown familiar and to reduce perceived threats, they are also overused generalizations – usually based on limited information and often negative.
As companies look to learn, grow and improve its diversity and inclusion, we break down some common situations and assumptions. Instead of automatically assuming someone is shy, consider a culture where a person waits to be asked for their opinion.
Consider the following situations
Situation: Why do some employees not speak up in meetings?
Assumption: Lack of competence or shyness.
Consider: The employee may be waiting to be asked for their opinion, or may not feel confident speaking up.
Situation: Why do some employees say they understand when they do not?
Assumption: Lack of competence or shyness.
Consider: Lack of understanding may lead to losing face. Saving and losing face are important to many cultures. It takes time to learn strategies that work within a Canadian context.
Situation: Why can’t some employees seem to stick to timelines and/or schedules?
Assumption: Lack of time management or lack of work ethic.
Consider: Time is viewed very differently among different cultures. In North America, time is a commodity, but for others, it is something much more fluid.
Situation: Why do some employees not look me in the eye during a conversation?
Assumption: Lack of confidence.Lack of honesty
Consider: Many cultures avoid eye contact out of respect. Some may view direct eye contact as aggressive, or too informal depending on the audience.
Situation: Why do some employees enter my personal space?
Assumption: Lack of respect, aggressiveness or harassment
Consider: Different cultures have different concepts about personal space. Closeness/proximity is used as a way to build relationships.
These are just guidelines and examples – they aren’t the be all end all. This doesn’t mean you don’t develop your personal sense of right and wrong. The goal is to refrain from looking through your value judgments.
Telling employees ‘how it’s done’ only further serves to alienate your culturally diverse workforce, forces them to integrate and hide aspects of their identity and creates a workplace that may look diverse, but is not inclusive. Perhaps you feel confident or comfortable in the myth of similarity – maybe it works for you, but it definitely does not work for many – in fact it causes anxiety and stress. It also causes harmful generalizations and stereotypes. You have to consider that the same actions have different interpretations – think about this.
When someone looks or acts ‘differently’, it’s possible to evaluate behaviour or characteristics and judge them as wrong. Often without knowing it, you’ve become ethnocentric. Assumptions of similarity are extended to non-verbal communication, notions of how conflict is resolved, decisions are made, gender roles, leadership/power, and thoughts and feelings. That’s a big leap and will get you in trouble.
There’s no universal human nature, so you MUST treat each encounter as an individual case.
What to do?
- Make the assumption of difference and don’t judge. This takes practice – your interpretations will begin to ‘fit’ what’s actually happening
- Investigate your thoughts, beliefs, values, assumptions. Think about a time someone judged you as different or wrong – how did you feel? Did it lead to smooth, effective communication? Probably not.
- Think about your own behaviour. Don’t be afraid to ask – don’t mute yourself into political correctness.
- Working with people from different cultures, you have to give thought to communication style and rules that are culture-bound. This can include:
- facial expressions and eye contact
- body language/non-verbal communication (don’t assume someone knows what you’re talking about based on your body language – there’s no universal code)
- personal space
- handling and displaying emotion
- tone of voice
- conversational patterns
- Develop a non-judgmental, investigative, attitude, high tolerance for ambiguity this requires you to lower your defenses:
- be authentic
- think about the thoughts in your head
- avoid assuming – go with it. (If you make a mistake, apologize and move on.)
- get to know others as individuals and let them know you as an individual
It is possible to learn the meanings of these messages, but you have to pay attention and be open to a different interpretation, or perception. You can bridge these cultural gaps through:
- Being mindful/aware of language: Language that sounds rude may reflect intonation in the first language. The employee is likely not intentionally being disrespectful.
- Being mindful/aware of concepts of personal space: This is influenced by gender, age, religion.
- Being mindful/aware of power relationships: Employees earners from different cultures will/may have very different beliefs about:
- the role of the supervisor
- the relationship between supervisor and employee
- the relationship between the employees and peers
- Being mindful/aware of the concept of time: Employees from different cultures will have very different beliefs about time.
- Being mindful/aware of how success/work is achieved in different cultures:
- Looking for indirect communication: Employees may not want to offend or appear foolish. You may need to read between the lines/look at body language to understand what is happening.
Intercultural communication is only one part of fostering an inclusive workplace environment. Through modelling acceptance and respect for diverse views and opinions, using inclusive language and intervening if any employee demonstrates behaviour that is disrespectful demonstrates a commitment to inclusion.