Cultural Diversity in the Workplace

The following is an article written by X204 Business Communication Adjunct Lecturer Robin Fritz for Chron.com, the online business portal for the Houston Chronical:

Overview – Thanks to technology and faster transportation, the world is growing smaller every day, leaving plenty of opportunities for businesses to expand their products, services and staffs on a global scale.  But with a more global business environment comes a host of new challenges, not the least of which is learning to function in a multicultural workplace comprised of people with widely differing backgrounds.  For businesses with a very diverse workplace, successfully juggling a multicultural staff can make or break the bottom line.

What is Culture? – Culture is an interwoven system of customs, morals, traits, traditions and values shared by a group of people or a society.  It provides people with a common heritage, and it links them through shared experiences and joint learning.  Cultures exist on scales both large and small, ranging from large cultures extending to countries and regions, such as the American culture or Middle Eastern culture, to such small and distinct cultures as that of Amish communities in Pennsylvaniato the Basque culture in southern France.  Moreover, cultures provide people with a sense of self identity and community, and it greatly influences their actions within the workplace.

What is Diversity? – But, not all cultures are the same.  For instance, some cultures operate on a more “low-context” level than others.  People raised in low-context cultures tend to be very literal – focusing on the spoken word – and they’re more often analytical and action oriented.  Low-context employees also tend to use linear logic in the workplace, for example proceeding from point A to point B to point C and so on.  Additionally, business managers raised in low-context cultures strive to be efficient and professional, and they treat time as a very limited commodity.  North America and Western Europe are examples of low-context cultures.

Embracing Cultural Diversity – High-context cultures, on the other hand, tend to be more contemplative and intuitive, and workers raised in such cultures often treat time as an endless resource.  Additionally, in such cultures, spiral logic is more common, with individuals circling indirectly around a topic, considering it from all angles and viewpoints instead of head on.  Whereas Americans may be very literal, high-context workers pay attention to more than just the spoken word, believing that all aspects of communication – body language, facial expressions, etc.  – carry as much meaning as the actual words themselves.  Examples of high-context cultures include Far Eastern, Middle Eastern and Hispanic cultures.

Encouraging Cultural Diversity – In today’s global economy people from both low-context and high-context cultures are interacting in multicultural workplaces like never before and, as people are affected both visibly and invisibly by their cultures, conflict can result from the inevitable misunderstandings.  For example, employees from high-context cultures such as China, Mexico or Japan may prefer to imply no with their body language rather than saying no in actual word form.  Literal Americans and Canadians, however, often overlook these subtle implications and may fail to understand. 

To overcome multicultural misunderstandings, smart business managers will take the time to learn about and understand the differing cultures represented within their workplace, and will train their employees from different cultures on how best to communicate with each other in the workplace.

http://smallbusiness.chron.com/multicultural-effects-workplace-10989.html

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