5 strategies for working with people from other cultures

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  • Nel came from Southeast Asia. She knows English well, but she discovered that English in her country is different from the English spoken in Manitoba. She often gets lost when her supervisor talks to her because he speaks rapidly and uses many idioms she is not familiar with. But Nel does not tell her boss that she doesn’t understand. In her culture, people don’t normally ask a lot of questions at work.
  • Elvira and Louise work closely in the same department. Elvira is bubbly and jokes around a lot. In her culture co-workers talk about personal matters all the time. One time, she made a comment about Louise’s body, thinking it was funny. Louise was offended and did not speak to Elvira for days. Even though Elvira apologized, it affected their working relationship.
  • John came to Canada from a workplace culture where women were never in leadership roles. And in his religion, a man would never touch a woman outside of his family. When he came to Canada, he found a job where his supervisor was a woman from a different ethnicity. On his first day of work, she introduced herself and reached out to shake John’s hand. John did not know what to do, so he just walked away. At work, he kept avoiding her. The supervisor thought that John was discriminating against her because she was a woman.
  • Peter is a newcomer from Europe. He was hired to supervise five people in a multicultural team. On his first week, the team complained to management. They said that Peter was too harsh and mean. When Peter learned about these comments, he was surprised. Back in his home country, he was among the top managers. In his culture, a boss is expected to comment on a subordinate’s work in a direct way.
  • Just like Peter, Habib was characterized as “bossy” by his subordinates. They said that he watched the team do their job to ensure that they were doing their job correctly. Habib told them each step they should take. Habib’s team complained that he micro-managed. As a supervisor back home, it was expected of Habib to tell each of his staff their duties. They were expected to ask the supervisor first before doing anything that is not within their duties.

Do one or all of these situations sound familiar to you? With Manitoba being one of the most (if not the most) multicultural provinces in Canada, it is expected that many of us will navigate these kinds of situations. When addressing these issues, it is best to remember five strategies when working in a multicultural workplace:

  1. Respect differences

    This means treating everyone as an equal and understanding that we are different. As newcomers in a multi-cultural workplace, you will realize that you will not only be adjusting to Canadian culture but a variety of other cultures as well. If you are in a potential conflict situation:

    • Understand before you judge. Pause before you act. Make an effort to ask and listen.
    • Empathize. Like you, some of your co-workers are also new to the country. This means that they are also learning and adjusting to new things each day. Have the patience to see things through their perspective.
    • You don’t have to agree about everything but respect is key.
    • Communicate by using respectful, common language.
    • To be respectful, be mindful of language, gesture, touch and space.
    • Be quick to apologize when you have said or done something to offend a co-worker. Many times conflicts are avoided by swallowing our pride and just being honest.
  2. Adapt your communication style

    Observe how communication is done in the workplace. Note their tone, their gestures, even the volume of their voices. In general, it is best to communicate clearly and briefly. Here are other pointers on adapting your communication style:

    • Eye contact is an important part of communication. This shows that you are respectful and trustworthy.
    • Using respectful language is a must. Say, “please,” “thank you,” “could/would you …” (when asking a co-worker to do something). It is important to be tactful when you are objecting to or commenting on something.
    • Talking about topics such as politics, religion, and money are frowned upon. You are expected to keep these matters private. The workplace is not the right place to discuss these matters.
    • Speak up when you have concerns about work, especially if it concerns safety or efficiency. Always ask if you don’t understand something. Don’t be afraid to suggest something if you think it will make work easier even if it is your boss you are talking to. In fact, the boss expects you to speak up, especially if it is your area of expertise.
    • It is alright to be friendly at work but know your boundaries. Avoid oversharing details about your personal life or being nosy when talking with co-workers.
  3. Understand power

    In Canada, the supervisor works together with his team. He or she is expected to guide, mentor, support, and resolve conflict within the team. But supervisors are not expected to watch your every move and tell you what to do in every instance. Each employee should work independently and exercise initiative to make their work better.

  4. Use Canadian time

    This does not only mean being punctual at work but also adjusting your work pace to your other co-workers. It also means not wasting your co-workers’ time with idle chatter or asking for help on tasks you should be doing yourself.

  5. Build credibility the Canadian way

    In other cultures, educational credentials, professional awards, job titles, and political or social class are the main markers of credibility. In the Canadian workplace, education and experience are important for getting a job. But it is how well you do your job and how well you work with others that affect your credibility.

    How to build your credibility:

    • Do your job really well
    • Do your job better than what other people expect
    • Talk and act kindly to people, even when they don’t
    • Show that you are a learner
    • Be flexible and be open to change
    • Have good English communication skills
    • Speak clearly and respectfully
    • Show positive attitude in the face of difficulties

Sources: Some parts adapted from Working in the Canadian Workplace – Handbook (2012) by Paul Holmes. The research and development for the book was performed by Paul Holmes of Anthony & Holmes Consulting Ltd. in partnership with Alberta Workforce Essential Skills Society (AWES); 5 tips for a multicultural work environment, Sarah Rowson, Work Awesome. Both accessed June 29, 2017.

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