Resolve cross-cultural misunderstandings

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Resolve cross-cultural misunderstandings

Even when we are thoroughly aware of all the barriers to effective cross-cultural communication and make use of available aids and tools to assist us in communicating with people from cultural and linguistic backgrounds different to our own, misunderstandings will occur.

Misunderstandings occur in all communication, even between people from the same cultural and linguistic background. We cannot expect to get it right all of the time.

What is important is that we know how to respond when a misunderstanding occurs and that we learn from our mistakes.

By the end of this topic you will be able to identify cross-cultural misunderstandings and perform the steps involved in resolving such misunderstandings.

When you have completed this topic you will be able to:

  • identify issues that may cause conflict

  • consider cultural differences if difficulties or misunderstandings occur

  • make an effort to sensitively resolve differences, taking account of cultural considerations

  • address difficulties with appropriate people and seek assistance when required.

Identify issues that might cause conflict

The obvious way we communicate is by using words. However, as we have seen, we also use non-verbal communication: our tone of voice, body language, gestures, posture and facial expressions all impact on communication.

Often people think that the use of gestures and facial expressions will be sufficient to convey an accurate message, without regard for the different rules of non-verbal communication which may apply in the other person’s culture.

However, just as verbal communication rules differ across cultures, so too do the rules of non-verbal communication. These rules are specific to each culture and are largely taken for granted. We respond to these rules without being aware of them.

Therefore it is important to be aware that our own non-verbal communication might be insulting to others. For example, in some cultures, maintaining constant eye contact while talking is interpreted as disrespectful. This is true for Aboriginal cultures.

The first step in developing skills to communicate with people from other cultures is to develop an appreciation of the rules of communication in our own culture. Similarly, an awareness of the most common barriers to effective cross-cultural communication is the first step to overcoming them. It also means that we will not be less likely to judge a person from another culture by our own cultural values.

When we are learning a new language, we need to learn the language as well as have an awareness of the culture. It is important of will have to learn new meanings and new ways of behaving.

Activity 1

Activity 2

Case study

This case study looks at resolving a misunderstanding between child care workers. It highlights cultural differences in both non-verbal communication and the social codes of conduct.

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Drawing of a woman touching another woman’s hair and saying ‘What a wonderful mop of curls’ with the other woman thinking ‘I know she means well, but I just wish she would stop. One should not touch people’s heads”,

Tina (originally from Malaysia): I have worked with a number of Fijians and sometimes I would touch their curly hair and tell them how nice and soft it feels. Then one day, I found out that in their culture, you’re not supposed to touch people on the head—only the chief can do that.

Think about how you might deal with the above case study by following the points listed below.

  1. Identify the misunderstanding.

  2. Try to understand the possible reasons/causes of the challenging situation by consultation with the person/s themselves, relatives, co-workers, supervisor, doctor and/or looking at resources for information and possible explanations.

  3. Develop and implement strategies to try to improve the situation.

  4. Observe and describe the outcome of your strategies—ie the success or failure of the strategies.

  5. Share your expertise with your colleagues to prevent the same problem happening again (eg inform your supervisor, other colleagues).

Case study… continued

Sala (originally from Fiji): When I came here to Australia years ago, people at work would feel my hair. It made me uncomfortable. We don’t go around touching people on the head in my Fijian culture. But not just that…if we walk into a room and there are people sitting on the floor, we always excuse ourselves and stoop a bit as we walk past them so we’re not towering so much over them. We also avoid reaching near their head for something.

Later on, when they found out, they stopped touching my hair. They were curious about how my hair feels as it’s very curly.

Mary (originally from Ireland): In the Fijian culture touching hair is NOT done. I’m guilty of having done this on many occasions, because I have been friends with Fijians at work. I would run my fingers through their hair and say ‘How I love your hair!’ or something like that. Never for a minute did I think that I was making my friends uncomfortable.

Make an effort to sensitively resolve differences, taking cultural considerations into account

Negotiating cross-cultural conflict

Now we will look at how you define, recognise and respond to challenging cross-cultural situations in the workplace. While a challenging situation may be similar to a cross-cultural misunderstanding, there are a number of key differences to be aware of.

While we hope that neither you nor any of your clients ever experience cross-cultural conflict in the context of community services or anywhere else, it is very important that if the situation did arise, you would know how best to respond.

Cross-cultural conflict and challenging interactions may involve a person behaving in any of the following ways towards another person on the basis of their cultural or linguistic background:

  • name calling

  • use of offensive language

  • degrading comments in reference to a person's ethnicity, culture, religion or background

  • ridicule based on a person's physical appearance

  • teasing or put downs

  • shouting/abuse/aggressive language

  • excluding/isolating/ignoring.

Being subjected to any of the above behaviours can make a person feel:

  • angry

  • upset/sad

  • ashamed

  • frightened

  • isolated

  • intimidated.

No-one has the right to make another person feel that way. It is your right NOT to accept offensive behaviour. Justifying, ignoring, or doing nothing about such behaviour gives permission for it to continue.

Cross-cultural conflict may occur when a person directs inappropriate verbal/non-verbal behaviour towards another.

Conflicts can occur not only between a client and staff but also between staff as well as between clients, as depicted below.

If you work with clients, eg in a community services setting, you will find this next section quite relevant. If your job does not involve working with clients, you will probably still find this section relevant—as you would be a client in other situations, eg, when you visit the dentist, when you buy a train ticket from someone at the ticket booth, etc.

Different interactions require different responses

The relationship/s between the people involved in the situation help determine the way we should respond to it. For example:

  • The different levels of power held by different staff members and between staff and parents and carers. If a person in power is instigating the challenging situation it will be harder for the other person to stand up for themselves.

  • Different cultures accord different levels of power to different people because of gender, occupation, age, etc.

The consequences of offensive actions will also differ depending on who the actor is. For example, there are specific laws concerning appropriate behaviour in the workplace.

Now, let’s look at the basic steps involved in addressing cross-cultural conflict.

The steps outlined below are based on the principle that while we can’t change people’s attitudes, we can often change their actions.

Responding to cross-cultural conflict

Step 1

Keep your cool—try not to respond emotionally.

Step 2

Tell the instigator promptly, clearly and calmly that you find their actions upsetting.

The important thing to remember here is that the person understands you find their actions, not them offensive. A good response would be: ‘Please do not say that to me, I find it offensive and upsetting’. This response is clear, direct, and does not attack the person. It addresses the action. If your response is directed to the person, they are likely to get defensive, a situation not likely to work in your favour.

Step 3

If the person apologises, accept their apology.

Step 4

If they don't apologise, let it go once.

Step 5

If the offensive behaviour happens again, action needs to be taken.

Step 6

The action taken will depend on the parties involved.

Step 6 will change depending on who is involved in the conflict situation. We will now look at responses for the range of possible parties in the health care setting.

Suggested responses to cross-cultural tension/conflict

Offensive parent/carer

If a parent/carer is behaving offensively towards you, it is important to remember not to take their behaviour personally. However, it is equally important that you know you have the right not to accept offensive behaviour on the basis of your background.

Offensive worker

Conflict/offensive behaviour instigated by a staff member towards a parent/carer is a serious and somewhat delicate matter. While it is hoped that no such interaction ever occurs, it is very important that were the situation to arise, we would all know how to react.

If you feel unable to confront the situation directly, or if you are unsure about whether or not to act upon something you have seen, promptly discuss the issue with someone you trust such as a colleague, supervisor, human resources/employee advisor, counsellor, union representative, health care complaints hotline.

Most workplaces have procedures allowing for the anonymous reporting of incidents/concerns/complaints; use them if you feel unable to respond in any other way.

Involving staff

Again, this is not a nice topic, but one that nonetheless needs to be discussed. The law states that all people have the right to be treated with dignity and respect and to refuse to accept offensive behaviour in the workplace.

  • If you are subjected to upsetting or offensive behaviour by a colleague at work, or if you witness such a thing happening to someone else, clearly, firmly and simply state that the behaviour is upsetting.

  • If the behaviour is offensive, but not threatening or aggressive, whether the person apologises or says nothing, let it go the first time.

  • If the behaviour is threatening or aggressive, or if the offensive behaviour recurs, tell someone you trust and follow the guidelines of your workplace.

  • If you feel unable to confront the situation directly, or if you are unsure about whether or not to act upon something promptly, discuss the issue with someone you trust such as a colleague, supervisor, human resources/employee advisor, counsellor, union representative, complaints hotline, Anti-Discrimination Board.

Most workplaces have procedures allowing for the anonymous reporting of incidents/concerns/complaints; use them if you feel unable to respond in any other way.

No matter who is involved in the negative interaction, whether the offensive behaviour is directed at you or you witness it happen to someone else, it is important that some action is taken promptly.

If you do not feel you can confront the situation directly yourself, speak to someone you trust or make an anonymous report.

Remember all people have the right to be treated with dignity and respect.

Address any difficulties with appropriate people and seek assistance when required

Activity 3


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