Cultural Confusion In The Workplace And How To Address It

Not all threats to diversity comes from outright malice. Many people group with similar, like-minded people until they have the means to branch out, which is unfortunately the truth for most of a person's childhood, teenage and young adult life. If your work center or team is filled with a few misconceptions that seem like honest belief instead of malicious intent, there are a few ways to break down barriers.

Teaching Isn't Required, But Helps

A person isn't required to teach others of their differences. Even though it can be helpful, this places an unfair "cultural tax" on a person, which requires them to go through a lengthy discussion to explain their situation just for others to treat them fairly.

It's understandable that some cultures--even within the same country--are so different that it's confusing. Some people may want to learn more than others, which is part of the curiosity that humans share. Such curiosity should be sated by observing and trying to understand, not by demanding information.

That said, there are some mannerisms that may not mesh with the work culture at first. Even within a cultural majority, there could be some household rules that may not fall in line with best practices or are opposite of other people's beliefs. It's fine to ask about these issues on a specific, case-by-case basis, but demanding that information should be avoided.

If you're in a leadership or other influential position with a culture that is vastly different, there may already be a lot of pressure. You may have the advantage of career superiority, but some distrust can begin to grow if you're not connecting with other cultures in your workplace. While it isn't required, inviting your subordinates to lunch, dinner or an outing that reflects your culture can give them some real exposure to the culture while hopefully dispelling some misconceptions.

Unfortunately, like many other things that humans learn and permanently internalize, some people may be stubborn to change what they assume is fact.

Be Accepting, But Not Assuming

There may be one person or a group that simply refuse to change their mind about a cultural, ethnic or racial group. It doesn't have to be malicious and can even be masked as trying to be accepting.

For example, embracing African American or Black culture in the United States has been a work in progress. Many well-meaning people have moved to black culture by accepting certain extremes of a culture. Soul food, hip hop music, certain dialect changes or slang are embraced, but there's such a thing as going too far.

A person's skin color does not determine their behavior. Although there is some correlation between certain skin colors being dominant in certain cultural groups, there are many different personalities within the African American example. While there are certainly people who enjoy certain types of music and speak in a certain way, avoid pushing that assumption until you've met the person.

A well-meaning person may think that it's great to suddenly slip into what they think is an African American vernacular whenever they speak with an African American person. Whether it's terribly forced or authentic, it's all too clear that the person is forcing the speech and actions just because of the African American's appearance. Talking about the latest rap songs or asking about soul food isn't welcome around someone who cares for neither.

Instead, speak in your own voice. Greet the person, speak with them as you would anyone else and allow their own personality to shine. Some of the actions are subconscious, so if you'd like to review your own diverse habits or that of your work center, contact a business diversity group such as DiversityInc.