December 9, 2021

Celebrating and encouraging conversation about cultural differences in the workplace

While many companies are heavily investing in diversity and inclusion training - which is certainly positive for the work environment - they may be overlooking a basic yet powerful way to create a more diverse and welcoming workplace: meaningful cross-cultural conversations. Diversity and inclusion in the workplace can obviously be a sensitive subject and although conversations about implicit bias and microaggressions are essential, they are not the only way to address cultural diversity and inclusion. Simple conversations that encourage people to share who they are and their experiences are just as equally important.

How to support cultural diversity in your workplace?

Provide a safe space for individuals to tell their stories - whether it is through your website, your social media channels, your podcast, or your newsletter. Giving people a voice to be heard not only strengthens cultural diversity in the workplace but also helps everyone learn and grow by developing greater cultural awareness and overcoming prejudice.

Encourage inclusive communication - Inclusive language in the workplace is more than just using "nice" and "welcoming" words. It is about broadening your perspective and actively avoiding assumptions about other people's abilities, culture, gender, sexual orientation and any other perceived "norms." It is also about building respectful interactions and giving everyone a genuine sense of belonging.

Promote cross-cultural icebreaker games such as "Find Someone Who." This game enables participants to open up, encourages them to interact with one another, find commonalities and bond as a team. Engaging tasks such as "Find someone who is bilingual. Ask whether they have learned anything about cultural differences from this experience." or "Find someone who has made a cross-cultural blunder and have a lunch conversation about it." are some effective ways to activate intercultural dialogue and encourage inclusion in the workplace.

Celebrate cultural holidays together - Sharing cultural celebrations is one of the best ways to increase awareness and understanding of each other's traditions and beliefs. Start by asking your collaborators which holidays would they like to be recognized and which cultural events are meaningful to them. Always get permission before sharing and discussing what others celebrate, and do not forget to avoid "Westernizing" celebrations from other cultures.

Keep these tips in mind before engaging in a cross-cultural conversation in the workplace (and beyond!)

Take a moment to reflect before asking culturally sensitive questions such as "Where are you from?" - or an even worse question like "What are you?". Is it absolutely necessary for you to know? Unless there is a compelling reason, asking these questions always runs the risk of being intrusive. People are curious by nature, and many just want to confirm their biases by asking about other people's culture or ethnicity. Do not forget that even if you get an answer to your question, you may lose out on the chance to see the person for who they truly are because of the possibility that your biases may overwhelm your further interactions with them. In addition, asking these questions might make your interlocutor feel embarrassed or even singled out.

Never start a conversation by asking about a colleague's culture or ethnicity. It is preferable to get to know the individual on a more personal level and to make sure they feel comfortable talking about their cultural background. If they decide to open up during the conversation and reveal details about themselves, their culture, or ethnicity, it is perfectly fine to ask respectful follow-up questions and show interest in their cultural background.

Consider expressing and asking things in a more appropriate way. For instance, instead of asking, "But... where are you REALLY from?" you might consider asking, "Where were you born or raised?" or "What is your cultural background?" If you have a genuine interest in learning more about your colleague, go ahead and ask. You may gain a whole different perspective on the other person's culture as a result.

Keep the boundaries in mind. This is a challenging task because boundaries are not always obvious and can differ from person to person. Even if the answer to your question is not what you were hoping for, respect your colleague's wishes and their privacy. If you ask a person where they are from and their only answer is 'France' without giving any other details, take that as a cue that they do not want to share more - and that is perfectly fine.

Do not forget to pay attention to your counterpart's body language as well. A typical cross-cultural blunder is to assume a deeper relationship based on misinterpreted cues. To you, a simple grin may mean "we are best buddies," but to the other person, it may mean "help - I am uncomfortable." Keep things simple, especially in the beginning. Let the relationship grow and the boundaries will adjust.

Finally, keep in mind that it is perfectly okay to make mistakes and start adopting a learning attitude. You get this real uneasy feeling that you made a mistake while conversing with someone from a different culture. Perhaps it was a terrible joke, an unintentional invasion of privacy, or a misinterpretation of the situation that caused your colleague to lose face. Accept that mistakes are inevitable and learn from them. You do not know everything. Your understanding of any individual or group has its limits. In general, broadening these limits implies that you are learning that there is more to the world than you first imagined - and that you are on your way to becoming more culturally aware: yay, keep it up!

Written by Diversity Enthusiast