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Living and Working With Cultural Differences

In the Kamba community where I was raised, weight gain was a sign of blessings and a positive aspect. It indicated an abundance of material blessings. Leaders with this blessing were considered powerful. Ample women?s bodies were preferred and suggested the amount of peace and harmony found at home. Things haven?t changed. When my mother visited my family in Eagle, Idaho in 1996, she gained some weight. Gaining extra pounds was a highlight of her visit.

In 1988, when I was new to the American culture, I told a friend, ?Wendy you must have had a great year. You are blessed.? Wendy inquired why I thought she was blessed. With no hesitation, I said, ?You are Fat.? Oops! Fortunately, Wendy acknowledged the African perspective and graciously educated me on the American one.

This was not my only cultural shock. As a youth growing up in Kenya, I learned that eye contact with elders was a sign of disrespect. Hugging or kissing in public was a cultural taboo and unheard of among people of high morals. The aspect of men being in labor rooms with their wives at the time of was and is still inconceivable for many Kamba people.

The ?Idaho Statesmen? has printed several articles on the lack of cultural differences in Idaho and the impact this has played in keeping talents out. Several recommendations on how to improve Idaho?s image have been presented. However, success can be guaranteed only when people learn each other cultural heritage as we become aware of the challenges and opportunities that are ahead.

As the world becomes a global village, there is an increasingly diverse customer base. This calls for a common cultural background or understandings between an organization?s representatives and customers and the need for and creation of international markets.

On the other hand, an organization that promotes an environment for living and working with cultural differences reduces mass exodus of talented employees, maintains high morale and low absenteeism, and avoids discrimination lawsuits and legal fees. People of diverse cultures offer different perceptions and abilities in finding innovative solutions to business problems and in creating a broad range of goods and services.

We need to incorporate cultural differences into our values and respect our own individuality and that of others. Living and working with cultural differences can?t survive as an organizational concept unless everyone adopts it as a personal value. Organizations must spell out that cultural diversity is neither a disguise for quotas nor a synonym for affirmative action. It is not a program, nor is it mandatory. There are no legal penalties for refusing to acknowledge the value of a culture that is different.

On an organizational level, each individual can channel and promote cultural differences by being open-minded. Nothing can happen until people communicate. Therefore, we have to communicate to understand one another. Avoid making assumptions about others. Admit ignorance and ask questions. To value other cultures, we must begin by learning about our own culture. Individuals should be experts on their own cultural development and willing to share their expertise with others. In this case, one has to be sensitive to cultural differences of others and not hypersensitive about his or her own. Confrontations based on differences can be avoided by focusing on similarities.

Marilyn Loder and Judy B. Rosener, authors of Workforce America! Managing Employee Diversity as a Vital Resource, state, ?Regardless of whether one sees cultural diversity as a potential threat or an opportunity, there is no denying that it is an American reality.? This is one of the main challenges that we in Idaho need to address and espouse. We need to bear in mind that cultural differences don?t divide people. People?s inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences does.

Now, my children, who are growing up in America, look at me directly, hug or kiss me anytime, and I was present when my son was born. I loved the experience, but I didn?t tell my mama about it! We can learn from other cultures and incorporate positive new aspects into our own lives.

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