Encouraging Multicultural Communications

March 4, 2019

Every day, we make assumptions and interpret situations, messages and non-verbal cues in a particular way without thinking. We forget that many of our decisions are greatly influenced by the cultural context of our upbringing and life experiences that shape our attitudes and behaviors, making us who we are today.

Often, we don’t understand why a co-worker communicates or thinks in a particular way because it just doesn’t fit into the box of what we believe is acceptable or proper — what we know as the norm. In my personal experience, these disconnects stem from not having a complete awareness and understanding of another person’s culture, as culture has the ability to influence values, opinions, customs, language, education and social mores.

Taking the time to learn about your peers’ backgrounds, which also influences the types of experiences they have and seek in the workplace, can be an effective way of expanding your worldview and understanding your team (and eventually, your clients) better. When you’re able to do this — to know what makes them tick, what they care about and what they value the most — you’re able to develop a common ground and a stronger bond. When people feel understood, supported, included and engaged, they develop a greater sense of belonging, which results in higher creativity and performance.

1. Observe and listen.

Be inquisitive. Ask about what you don’t know or want to know, and ask about what may be uncomfortable or what you’ve had doubts about. A great part of understanding each other comes from listening, so listen to your team and apply what you know about them to make better decisions that benefit your organization and your employees.

2. Turn differences into opportunities.

We have a natural tendency to gravitate toward people who look, act and think like us. We can’t help it. But what we can do is push ourselves outside our comfort zones and try to engage and collaborate with those who we most disagree with. You would be surprised how quickly this can open your mind.

For instance, employees who are bicultural may be able to adapt easily and work effectively in a diverse team because they’re able to understand the subtleties and unspoken norms of their own cultures and recognize the potential differences in other contexts.

The important thing is to take in everyone’s differences as opportunities to create something bigger, better and greater. Because we all know that diversity fosters creativity and the most successful groups don’t run on homogeneous minds; they thrive in diverse ones.

3. Experiment with communication and engagement strategies.

A company culture that empowers employees to innovate and allows them to lead by example may resonate very well with a Gen Z employee in the U.S. but may not work so well for someone else. How does this affect how you communicate and engage your teams? You have to be very sensitive and learn about their communication styles and social norms, and any other teachings or belief systems that impact the way in which they operate in their business each day.

You may assume that because no one asks questions, your team doesn’t have any questions. Don’t assume anything. Remember that in a given culture, it may not be acceptable to ask questions in public or expose the fact that you don’t know something. Also, perhaps expectations are set or expressed in a different way.

Start with a simple question: What’s your culture like? It can open the door to a whole new world of possibilities, ideas and growth.

Now it’s your turn to observe, listen, take in, transform and apply.

Andrea Gils

Andrea Gils, a native of Uruguay, is the marketing and communications manager at the University of Kentucky International Center. She was on the PRSA New Pros National Committee in 2016, currently serves on the PRSA National Diversity & Inclusion National Committee and is a Champion for PRSSA. Connect with her on LinkedIn: andreagils.



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