Diversity in the Workplace

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Working with people of different cultures How can the concept of Working with people from Different Cultures be applied to a situation in your past/present work or school life?

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I worked in South Africa at one time for a year. It was very difficult getting used to the great reduction in what is called personal space. In America, personal space is said to be about two feet or more if you're shy or reserved. In South Africa among Afrikaners, I think it is liberal to say the personal space is about two inches (now that was an ironic witticism that may be missed by a non-American reader; I think saying four inches might be fairer--and that may still be an ironic witticism). I found I was continually being back into walls and corners quite literally. Instead of their taking offence at my taking repeated steps backward, they seemed to think it was a fun sort of little dance! I surely did not think it was. That was thirty years ago. In today's milieu, I may feel more comfortable and safer with saying, "Stop. Stay there, right where you are." I always expected my movement would be understood and my desire for distance respected. I was mistaken. In A Good Year, Russell Crowe's English character does a good job of keeping French Duflot at arm's length, literally. I had had a short assignment in Switzerland a couple of years before that and the situation was somewhat reversed. The Swiss are very formal and, to them, I seemed like the aggressive unpolished American who was awkwardly ignorant of social ins and outs. 

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Working with someone from another country or culture has become more important particularly for those who live near to the Mexican border.  Many Hispanic people have moved into my area.

With more diversity come varied expectations of service as well as language barriers. Customer service training consultants are adding diversity to their curriculum because customers have varied backgrounds and expect customized service. Employers realize they must attract, retain, and promote a full spectrum of people to be successful.

As a school counselor, it became important for me to learn more about the Spanish culture. First, I took two semesters of Spanish at the local university to at least be able to read what the parents and their children might write. 

Language is one of the major barriers to being successful with foreign workers.  The use of clichés and idioms often present a problem for ESL workers since most of them can only translate literally the words.  Cross culture humor must also be handled carefully.  The ESL speaker may not understand what is being said.  For example, if a person were to say: “Here is the good news and bad news. Here is the bad news.  I had an accident and demolished my car.  Here is the good news.  It got 32 miles to the gallon.” They might not see any humor at all in the rather humorous but sad news.

Be careful of the word “Yes.” It does not necessarily mean agreement. It could mean that the person understands what the person said.  Learn the difference between yes, not, and maybe to the ESL speaker. 

Personal space is different in cultures.  When someone puts a hand on the other person’s shoulder, this may be an intrusion into the other person’s space.  Learn what is acceptable about touching and what is not.  Touching may also have different sexual connotations as well.

Learn about the culture of the worker.  Food, clothing, government, likes and dislikes—knowing these things will help the person to stem the cultural barrier. Then, share the same information when possible with the ESL worker.

The only kind of attitude to have when working closely with anyone particularly someone from another country is positive.  Make the other person feel welcome and secure in work space.

Be sure to learn what offends people from the other culture. That will stand the person in good stead, so there will never be the opportunity to offend the ESL person. Promote team spirit by including the other person in all activities that occur.

Make the other person feel that he is a part of the team and is a valued member.  

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It is extremely common for preschool or elementary school classrooms to utilize various types of food during the course of certain lessons.  This could be anything from making “macaroni” pictures or using beans as counting aids or as a part of a sensory station.  It is a reflection of American middle class culture that we would use food as a disposable resource during the course of education.    


The problem that I have encountered is that many cultures, both economic and ethnic, do not have a similar view of food.  Many of these households are either dealing with, or have dealt with, shortages of food.  In these cases, the children have been taught that food, of any type, is a precious commodity.  It is not to be played with or wasted.  They may be uncomfortable or confused when asked to use food as a tool during the course of their education. 


Additionally, the parents may become confused or even angered by what they perceive as the misuse of food during the course of their child’s education. 

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In almost every workplace situation there are going to be people from different backgrounds and cultures present.  Even in a mostly homogeneous workplace, people will have differences.  In my workplace there are several different religions present.  There are also several personal preferences.  Such a simple thing as having vegetarian and gluten free food at workplace gatherings can make a big difference to people.  It shows that you value them, and makes them feel less left out.

It is usually the subtle things that fail to translate.

Up to 90% of any communication is nonverbal, and gestures, postures, and expressions vary widely from one culture to another, as does intonation and phrasing. (managerwise.com)

It is important for people in the workplace to recognize that certain employees will not pick up nonverbal cues that are culturally based, and might have some gestures and practices that Americans do not understand.  When speaking to these people, it is important to make sure that they really understand.

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Students' attitudes in the classroom are strongly affected by culture.  For example, there are cultures in which it is considered improper to look an authority figure directly in the eye and cultures in which participation in a classroom discussion is not customary.  As a teacher in the United States, I have encountered both of these, as well as other differences, and it is up to me to have some understanding of other cultures so that I do not misinterpret behavior as sneaky, disrespectful, or uncooperative.  Similarly, it is up to me to create a classroom environment that ensures that none of my students misunderstand the behaviors and attitudes in different cultures. 

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Education is an extremely open and diverse field.  As the post mentioned above, teachers often find themselves working with numerous culturally diverse colleagues as well as the students in their classrooms.  One of the most important factors in maintaining a good working relationship with a culturally diverse population, especially in education, is to make sure that the students feel that their work in the classroom is relevant to their life situation and culture. 

As an English teacher, I try to incorporate authors and poets from a wide variety of cultures and nationalities, rather than just stick with the classic English literature.  Helping the students develop a broad cultural perspective can prove challenging, but is ultimately very rewarding.

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Almost all teachers end up at one point or another having to deal with people from different cultures.  This is, then, a very important concept for them.  The people from different cultures may be students or they may be coworkers.  Either way, the teachers need to learn to get along with them. 

For example, I teach in a district in which many of the students come from families where no one has ever been to college.  I have to work with the families to help to convince them that it will be beneficial for their children to go to college.  This requires me to try to convince them without seeming to talk down to them or to belittle their own ideas.

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