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How to build cross-cultural bridges.

How to Build Cross-Cultural Bridges

The changing composition of the work force makes clear the need to manage diversity: The white male who traditionally dominated the work force will be reduced by 39 percent by the year 2000 in the US. As we move into the next century, the new entries into the US work force will be 85 percent white women, immigrants, blacks, hispanics and Asians. The idea that special planning or training is necessary may seem odd to some since the composition of the new work force, while made up of people of different groups will, nonetheless, still consist mostly of Americans.

It certainly is true that Americans share much in common--beliefs, values and goals. However, in some groups the young learn to be members of their own culture first. Race, ethnicity and class values are instilled from infancy on. Few of us are aware that this is happening as much of this imprinting is done non-verbally. Becoming an American is a process that is then interspersed through the primary culture. The impact of the primary group culture on the individual remains dominant. In the last 30 years there seems to be a pattern of blending of the various cultures with the American culture rather than assimilation.

Work force diversity requires thoughtful planning if people not normally used to working together are expected to adjust to each others' values, styles of thinking and working and to learn the culture of the corporation. To have a successful multicultural work force we must first recognize that the differences are real, develop employee awareness and respect for differences, and plan for common corporate values that clearly spell out the rules on how to achieve corporate goals.

All of us, without training or extensive exposure to people different from ourselves, act appropriately within our own cultural context and make assumptions that everyone we meet shares the same basic values and has the same priorities. Too often the interpretation made is that the person who is different is wrong, deficient, or lacking in character--depending on the nature of the particular incident. These attitudes toward people of different groups can seriously interfere with the operation of the workplace.

Understand Cultural Differences

Our organization has found through supervision of a multicultural work force, white, black and hispanic, that a real understanding of one's own values and an openness to others' is essential if bridges are to be built between different groups. Interpretation of differences and the search for common ground yields new rules that do not offend any group.

The process of true understanding of those different from ourselves is a difficult and challenging one as we can see when we realize that cultural values involve culturally mandated choices around how we are to conduct our lives.

These choices are clear and involve exclusion of certain other possibilities. Other cultures may order their priorities of similar values differently. It should be obvious that if one group selects to value the individual over the family and the other the family over the individual, there will be many conflicts on the job as they each operate without awareness that the other is applying different rules. Each culture has rules for behavior and living which its members take for granted because they have been taught verbally and non-verbally by all the people who surround them as they are growing up. Acceptance of the rules is the price of continued membership in the group.

Another example of a kind of misunderstanding that occurs between workers of different groups, takes place when a worker from a group that places a very high value on competition works with another from a group that values cooperation and team work. American values include all of these--the individual and family, competition and team work. However, different racial and ethnic groups place the values in a different order of priority. Each group assumes that since we all live under the umbrella of the American culture that our own group's interpretation of the culture is, in fact, the American culture.

A major difference between some of the new groups entering the work force and those that have dominated until now, is the style of thinking. Those who have been outside the mainstream often have a different way of informing themselves about the world. It is a contextual view which takes in information about not only a specific event but also all the interrelated conditions in which the event exists or occurs. The popular stereotype suggests that when women think in this way it is called intuition, and unfortunately sometimes is labeled inferior, and deemed to be the result of a lesser intelligence.

Similarly, the typical male who has dominated the work world is said to think in a way that is more linear and rational, looking for cause and effect with less interest in the context. These are different but not less competent ways of perceiving the world and processing information. In fact, both are needed to solve problems. It can, however, result in misunderstandings, when the parties involved are not clear about the different style and therefore do not benefit from the different kinds of information given. This can be an especially difficult issue between a supervisor and an employee until there is clarity about communication styles.

Recognizing Multicultural Difficulties

As diversity in the organization increases, the fact that large numbers of people will be playing by different rules will have a noticeable impact on the effective operation of the business. Employees are not usually cognizant of the fact that they are playing by different rules, which leads to the definition of some workers as resistant, uncooperative, lacking in initiative, too passive, lazy or dumb.

What are the signs in a multicultural work force of possible cultural or racial problems? The following is a list of some of the symptoms:

* Physical distance

* Lateness

* Silence

* Absenteeism

* Poor performance

* Illness

* Outright hostility

* High employee turnover

As our places of business employ increasing numbers of people of diverse groups, important questions are raised. Who will resolve the dissension that is based on the values of two or more competing groups? What guidelines will be used? Will the guidelines be based on the rules or needs of one or another of the groups involved in the dissension or will it be determined by a third (perhaps employer) group? How will you find common ground?

If there is to be a successful resolution, it will come from people who have a profound awareness of multicultural and class differences. Learning to deal with diversity or multiplicity of any kind requires a different kind of thinking--one which synthesizes all of the disparate information: it is multidirectional rather than linear.

A Few Suggestions

The first rule is to make no assumptions about the reasons why people different from you are operating in ways you might describe as negative. Ask for an explanation of the behavior and attempt to understand the intent of his/her actions.

Second, be very specific about the mission statement and the operating rules of your organization. Have you included people different from yourself in the planning and implementation of the multicultural work force?

Third, spell out clearly how an employee will know whether he or she is doing a good job. Be very specific and operate from a positive rather than a blaming stance. A monocultural work force has a large body of shared information; subtle nuances and expectations are understood. This operating style leads to confusion, poor performance and anger on the job when the work force is diverse.

Fourth, is the decor of the office welcoming to a diversity of people or does it represent only the preferences of one group? Is uniformity of dress and hair style required or is your work force welcoming and accepting of differences?

To quote the multicultural communicators at the recent IABC conference: "We can either manage diversity or it will manage us." When the US work force consists of 15 percent or more people from different racial and ethnic groups, new rules must be negotiated.
COPYRIGHT 1989 International Association of Business Communicators
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Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:cross-cultural communications
Author:Vanderkloot, Jo
Publication:Communication World
Date:Jul 1, 1989
Words:1345
Previous Article:1992: meeting the communication challenge.
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