program director for the West Toronto Chapter of HRPAO, I invited
Anne Thornley-Brown of The Training Oasis,
Inc. to speak at a luncheon on “The Changing Face of Diversity”.
I have personally known her for many years and knew she’d deliver a
highly informative, innovative, interactive and professional
During lunch, among gasps from the participants, she began
setting up her equipment. She was wearing a clean, orange, slightly
wrinkled tennis shirt – inside out!, khaki pants and boots. Some
participants were so upset, they said her shirt was “upside down”. I
was embarrassed and felt responsible for bringing in a speaker who
neglected the appropriate dress code....
Anne's note:In polite Canadian style, nobody said a word to the speaker about it or openly acknowledged the obvious. The stage had been set for us to move beyond the polite facade and explore the challenges of diversity in Canada. My point had been made. A lively exploration followed.
And then the penny dropped.
Anne had made her point with her entrance! She brought out our
biases, prejudices, beliefs, stereotypes, values and hidden
discrimination without speaking a word. During the ensuing
role-play, she left the room, returning in a suit. We learned a lot
If only it was that simple to illustrate in a normal workplace.
When you add the challenge of multicultural workteams, it becomes
even more of a struggle.
People either love or hate teams.
They’re complicated. Their ingredients combine diverse personalities
and points of view. Cultural diversity can bring new methods of
communication, group dynamics, relationships and ways to process
Due to Canadian immigration over the past 50 years, the varied
cultural mix has broadened our scope and challenged our prejudices.
The Canadian mosaic has created individual differences that blend
into the vast culture of the country and into the businesses of the
land. In the workplace, though, differences that may seem quaint or
charming over a cup of coffee can become barriers to effective team
processes, and eventually necessitate a paradigm shift in the way we
see and manage employees.
A paradigm is our own assumption, frame of reference or how we
see and understand our world, and is the source of values,
attitudes, beliefs, prejudices and behaviours.
A paradigm shift demands that we not only look at things
differently, but also change our behaviour. Global companies must
now assess their mission, vision, values, structure, strategy,
corporate culture and human resource development to ensure that all
are aligned with this new shift in thinking.
In order to develop cultural competence, management must
recognize the strength and value of diversity, and develop cultural
knowledge and cross cultural skills. However, communication across
cultures goes beyond the spoken language.
Challenges of cultural differences and practises
People of diverse cultures approach a business relationship in
As a Canadian, accustomed to a task-oriented
culture that gets the job done without necessarily building a
relationship, I learned to change my expectations when I worked in
Venezuela. Knowing the individual and building trust was critical
before any business could occur. What I didn’t know was the actual
steps in the process and the length of time it would take. For me,
it was an exercise in patience and a priceless learning experience.
Time And Meetings: In an article on CultureSavvy.com, the writer
suggests that people view time either rigidly or flexibly, thus
influencing the starting time and duration of a meeting. Whether
they are more group-oriented or individualistic, or from cultures
with more or less hierarchy will influence their ability to make an
on-the-spot decision, or even to give immediate feedback.
Verbals and Non-Verbals: One of the greatest barriers to
effective communication across cultures is not only the variety of
first languages people speak, but also the different idioms, the
subtler linguistic nuances and the general vernacular used in
specific regions where the same basic language is used.
For example, when the Japanese say “yes” to a contract, they
really mean they will think about it. According to their language,
there isn’t a specific word for “no”. Being polite is deeply
entrenched in their culture. How would that affect the understanding
of a response from a Canadian team member in the group?
errors using literal translation have been cited. For instance, when
the word preservatives is literally translated into Spanish, it
means condom. On a particular box of chocolates, the label read,
“There are no condoms contained in the preparation of these
In his newly published book, “Intercultural Communication and
Body Language”, Johannes Galli describes the following
misunderstandings caused by body language:
• Thumbs-up sign:
Understood as a positive signal in North America and Europe, in Asia
and Africa it becomes a phallic symbol and considered a rude, sexual
• O.K. sign: A circle formed by the index finger and the
thumb, in Greece, Turkey or Russia the same gesture symbolizes a
human posterior opening and considered highly obscene
Cultural Context and Meaning: In Beyond Culture, Edward T. Hall
describes the challenge of a direct linguistic translation of a
language. During the 1950’s, the United States Government spent
millions of dollars developing machine translations of Russian and
other languages. Unable to translate the context, the machines
translated the words accurately, making a distorted sense of their
meaning. The project was dropped.
According to Hall, people communicate differently depending on
their context styles. For example, the Americans, Swiss, Germans and
Scandinavians have a “low context culture”. They tend to be direct,
get down to business quickly and believe that most of the message is
in the words.
High context cultures, such as the Japanese and Latin Americans,
believe that words alone are not enough. They watch non-verbal cues
and want to know everything about a topic and an individual. They
take longer to do business because personal relations are important.
Foreign Accents: Liliana Chocarro of LC Plus Biosciences
Consulting, whose first language is Spanish, has an incredible
understanding of the English language. Today, she speaks with a
slight accent and has experienced the issues that result. She states
that many people have difficulty with strong foreign accents,
treating the speaker as if “their brain has defects”. Listeners tend
to correct pronunciation and grammar, rather than absorb the content
and meaning of the message. A foreign rocket scientist who may speak
the local language with difficulty still has remarkable expertise in
his known field of endeavour, but a heavy accent can create a
barrier that results in discrimination.
When training or in a meeting with those from other countries,
Chocarro, understanding that some people may be translating “in
their heads”, speaks more slowly and gives more breaks because these
listeners tire sooner. Her handouts are copies of the visual text
slides, intended for deeper clarification at a later time.
Meetings: Who’s going to be present at the meeting? Who will ask
questions? Who will be comfortable speaking? Who will be prepared to
make commitments and decisions and what will be the differences in
their comfort level? It’s important to know prior to the meeting in
order to plan according to the variances in style.
Body Distance: Different cultures demand different distances when
speaking to each other. Europeans and Asians generally require at
least an arm’s length, while Latin Americans come in closer and will
often touch an arm, give a hug and kiss. With such differences,
misunderstandings can frequently occur.
In Galli’s Seven Rules for Effective
Communication, he suggests we learn the various messages sent by
such things as posture, language, movement or voice which help us to
identify concealed information about a situation, and communicate
and understand each other more effectively.
According to Thornley-Brown (of the wrinkled shirt), we must
learn to compensate for our own biases and filters, avoid making
assumptions without facts, appreciate the skills of members from
other cultural groups, make sure staff knows appropriate behaviour
and definitely avoid sexist or racial jokes.
Teams have enough difficulty working together without additional
Due to our global village, increased air travel
and the Internet, we have considerable access to recruiting people
on a global basis and routinely transfer staff from one country to
another. This is a great opportunity for human resource departments
to educate their companies in the strategic plans for training that
must be carried out in order to achieve harmony and success in the
workplace. By looking at diversity as a benefit and allowing
individual talents, skills and experience to enhance each team, we
gain from the varying ways people experience their world.
Lorraine Weygman specializes in coaching managers to acquire
& develop high performing teams. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and
(416) 630- 6423.