I still remember the embarrassment and dismay I felt the day I was in a lovely trattoria in Italy. Just after lunch I walked in to use the washroom. Much to my chagrin a man exited one of the stalls. I thought to myself, “I don’t think I walked into the men’s room.” Well, it turned out I hadn’t. The washroom was communal a custom which is far more common in Europe than in Canada.
Who hasn’t had an awkward experience like this? You’re in a foreign country or unfamiliar environment and you feel unsure about negotiating some simple little routine. It’s something new Canadians face all the time. I realized that when I taught English to recent immigrants. Frequently, it’s not just the language differences that make both teaching and learning more challenging – it’s the cultural differences.
From what I see in the workplace, cultural differences are actually becoming the rule rather than the exception. It’s the reality, given our population base. A recent Statistics Canada report noted that by 2031 about one-third of Canada’s population will be a visible minority. No wonder cultural differences are creating real challenges.
It’s interesting how much that phrase, “cultural differences,” is bandied about without much thought as to what it actually means though. The fact is, cultural differences are as many and varied as cultures themselves are. So really, when we talk about cultural differences, we need to be specific.
One Language Lab blog reader, Lily Xu Midwinter, commented on a previous post (Making Your Presentations Powerful about the challenges second language learners face before they even get in the office door. She works with an organization called Bond Education Group, and is currently designing an English as a Second Language (ESL) program for new Chinese-Canadians. She needs to figure out how to best teach this very specific group of people the language skills they will need to find work.
But even if a person has basic language skills and lands a job, there is still that additional complexity of cultural differences. Imagine your first day at a new job and your boss says, “Hey Lily, how’s it going?” But the culture you’re from uses formal titles of respect. How do you know what to call your boss, let alone whether to say “hey” rather than “hi?” Or imagine that you are the boss, and your new employee avoids addressing you, and you have no idea why.
Something that can help is to understand some of the typical business/cultural traits within any one community. Take China, for example:
- Chinese society and business organizations tend to be hierarchical and formal.
- Seniority in a business situation tends to dictate who leads discussions or negotiations, and voices opinions.
- Responding with direct negativity to a situation is often considered impolite, resulting in an ambivalent response. (As opposed to an employee saying, “I’m sorry, but because of x, y, and z, it’s actually not possible to do what you are asking.”)
Of course these differences will not apply to every individual or situation. Perhaps you work with an immigrant from China who is the most outgoing person on staff, frequently initiating discussions (and saying “hey, Sandy” on his way in to work each morning). Yet, it is helpful to recognize that generalizations exist for a reason – because there is enough evidence to indicate they are true at least quite a bit of the time.
If, as a non-Chinese employer, you find yourself thinking that the above points do apply to some of your employees, you need to initiate better communication, to explain the way the hierarchy in your company works. You need to let people know that during a brainstorming session you really do want them to jump in with an opinion. In the instance of point # 3, you need to make it clear that there is actually a time when it’s OK to say “no,” when “no” may simply mean “we need to find another solution.”
From an employee’s point of view much of the challenge of cultural difference is about knowing what is expected in Canadian office culture. Community associations are frequently good sources for this kind of information for new Canadians. In Ottawa, for example, the Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre offers a course for Internationally Trained IT professionals including a segment on “Understanding Canadian Workplace Culture.”
Negotiating the tricky waters of cultural differences is also something I deal with in my own work through the Language Lab. I make a point of asking employees who are new to Canada what they find confusing about the Canadian workplace. Doing so gives me a better sense of how to tailor our online learning programs to that specific organization’s needs.
What I’ve found is that more often than not cultural differences connect to perceptions of what is polite or appropriate. So it just takes some basic understanding of the key cultural differences to begin to improve relationships – and therefore productivity – in the workplace. Not to mention this helps us achieve a better understanding of each other, which is a kind of success in itself.