Cultural sensitivity: 3 things not to say or do in a multicultural setting

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One of the best things about living and working in Manitoba is that it welcomes diversity. It is one of the most, if not the most, multicultural province in Canada. You can trace more than 200 ethnic origins from among its residents. Around 100 languages are spoken here aside from the official languages of English and French. In Winnipeg alone, it is estimated that 22 per cent of the population are foreign-born.

While it can be exciting to be exposed to this wealth of cultures, views, and beliefs, but it can also be difficult. The same differences that make your workplace colourful can be the same root of conflicts or misunderstandings. To have a harmonious and productive workplace, everyone is expected to be flexible. One has to keep an open mind. Respecting differences is the best policy. Practicing these ultimately lead to developing cultural sensitivity.

Just as important as applying these traits is to stay away from practicing these three things:

  1. Stereotyping people by race

    Stereotyping by race is when you assume that a group of people share certain traits based on race or nationality. Usually, these are qualities popularized by stories or in various media (in TV shows or movies for example). There are positive, negative and neutral racial stereotypes. For example, “All Asians excel at math” or “Mexicans are illegal immigrants.”

    Whether positive, negative, or neutral, stereotyping is harmful because it limits individuals and prevents us from getting to know one another at a genuine level. Moreover, stereotyping is often the root of racism. Preconceived notions can lead to prejudice or discrimination against certain groups. This is not helpful, especially in the workplace.

    Example situation: Preferring to work only with a certain racial group for certain tasks because of perceived strengths and weaknesses.
    Why this is counterproductive: Doing this prevents the organization from fully benefiting from the wealth of skills that each member has. It can also harbor resentment from workers who can contribute but are limited by this preferential treatment.

  3. Making ethnic jokes

    You are always bound to offend someone when you make jokes about race. Even when you think that the joke is harmless, it is never a good idea to risk it. We like to joke around, especially when we feel that we have established camaraderie and closeness with our co-workers. But there are boundaries. All of us have a strongly rooted attachment to our ethnicity. How would you feel if a co-worker made fun of your people?

    Example situation: Copying the accents of certain nationalities when you talk to get a laugh.
    Why this is counterproductive: Mocking people is always wrong. It is degrading and rude.

  5. Criticizing another person’s country or culture

    We all have the tendency to compare and contrast. People are just built that way. But the thing to remember here is: There is no superior culture or country. There is no better or best, just different. The proper mindset should be to respect this difference.

    If you think about it, there are reasons why certain cultural values and traits exist in a certain society. These evolve due to many factors. If you do not belong to a particular society or did not grow up in it, you will not understand the logic behind their values and traits. If you are perplexed about a practice or certain behaviours common to a certain race, it will be better to ask respectfully rather than to criticize them straight away. Your intention should be to understand, rather than to put down.

    Example situation: Three members of your team come from the same country. They work well but they talk loudly in their own language during breaks. You complain to the head of your team about the three members, saying that “those (nationality) are just so loud. These people have no respect for others.”
    Why this is counterproductive: This called a sweeping generalization. Three people are not representative of the entire race (stereotyping). Also, complaining straight away to the head of the team (with the added assumption that the group does not have respect for others) can make the issue bigger than it is and may create ill-will between you and the group that can last a long time. The situation could have been solved by simply asking them nicely to keep the noise down during breaks.

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Community Resources

Developing Cultural Dexterity in your Organization is an 18-part video series on YouTube funded by the Alberta Government. Lionel Laroche, cross cultural consultant of Multicultural Business Solutions, talks about cultural differences in the Canadian workplace and how to manage them.

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