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More on Living and Working with Cultural Differences

When Caroline, my daughter, started school in Laramie, Wyoming, I noticed that she began looking at me directly when we talked. Coming from a culture that interprets eye contact with a person?s elders as a sign of disrespect, I was bothered that my child was so rude. I soon learned from observing other children as they spoke with their parents and teachers that Caroline was doing what she had learned in school.

In our present cultures many talented people have not been hired because they did not have good eye contact, thus showing a lack of self confidence. Others may have been categorized as slow learners or anti-social when they couldn?t give an answer in a group setting.

Culture, as a pattern of values and beliefs we reflect in our behavior, is developed by a group of people over a period of time. As communities become the home for more people of diverse cultures, residents need to understand the cultural baggage of people they live, work and do business transaction with. Our success in creating an image that attracts talented employees and helping to portray the harmony that exists in most communities depends on how we learn to live and work with differences.

In the American culture, individual identity, privacy and independence are valued. In other cultures, group identity is often preferred. Most American business meetings start without a formal greeting. In some other cultures, business issues are discussed after socialization. Someone from another culture may not know how to respond to, ?What can I do for you?? if it is said before, ?How are you and your family?? A child from another culture may feel unappreciated if a teacher begins teaching before a friendly salutation.

One cultural aspect that may cause misunderstanding is the issue of time. In African cultures, time is ?elastic.? If someone says he will arrive in the morning, one doesn?t give up until past noon. In these cultures, human interaction is of paramount importance. You would rather be late than to leave a discussion. In industrial cultures, conversations are filled with references to time and schedules. A friend from Zaire, African, new to the American culture, told his pastor that he wanted to speak with him. The pastor suggested that they book an appointment. This was strange to my friend, and he left the church.

As American businesses reorganize, change is viewed as a positive development that promotes growth and flexibility. Mobility may be viewed as independence. Other cultures which value stability, continuity or established traditions may resist change, especially if it is abrupt.

Communication is another area of cultural differences that may affect relationships and productivity. In industrial cultures, news reports are short and succinct. Intermediaries are rarely used. I found it shocking when a doctor came to me and told me a loved one was going to die. In other cultures, there are ritualistic methods of delivering bad news, and intermediaries are used for issues ranging from dating to preserving marriages. While openness is important here, it can be startling to those who are uninitiated.

Business organizations are now emphasizing teamwork. This concept is a challenge for people who grew up knowing competition brings out the best in classroom, sports and other social settings. In traditional cultures, team spirit is practiced in home and community affairs.

Living and working with differences is a lifetime effort. Cultures are dynamic, and managing cultural differences is a skill that can be learned.

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