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Cultural Sensitivity in the Work Place: Touching Strangers

If we understand culture as being “the way of life of a particular society or group” and sensitivity, as the quality of being “very open to or acutely affected by external stimuli or mental impressions” (The Oxford English Reference Dictionary), we have a starting point in exploring our work environments to see if we can detect such sensitivities in others and whether we possess such ourselves.

When it comes to interacting with other people, we must always commence with ourselves, using our informed sense of self to navigate our way through our dealings with others, being attuned to their reactions to us by using all our senses—sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. We must use the responses picked up by our senses to learn, adapt and try alternative ways of engagement, if, perhaps, at first we did not succeed to make contact, then apologize, seek help, be humble, give oneself permission to get things wrong at times, in spite of our best intentions.

Self-knowledge is extremely powerful. It provides a platform of confidence on which you can be more able and willing to explore interactions with others, regardless of how different they may appear. That knowledge also serves as a sounding board against which to seek understanding of the interaction by checking what echoes are remotely similar or dissimilar in terms of life experience. The knowledge provides insights into yourself that can alert you to the potential sensitivities in others. We are all fragile, easily hurt and need to be treated with care, respect and thoughtfulness in order to bring out the best in each of us. The challenge, however, is how to achieve this in the workplace and what benefit does it serve the organization I work for?

Cultural groups are created. They are not in many instances self-evident unless expressly advertised by the group in question. Cultural groups are also evolving continuously over time in terms of beliefs, practices, membership criteria, ways of understanding and interpreting cultural texts and so on. In addition, not all members of the cultural group think and act alike. Therefore, assumptions about what a member of such and such cultural group may think and act on a particular matter may be varied. Caution, openness and allowing one to learn is critical in all interactions and especially so when there are apparent differences that one is not used to. The starting point is always to seek to engage and try to understand one another.

The route to understanding is via using yourself as a kind of barometer seeking to measure the pressure—the potential access to understanding in the interaction ventured. If accurate, one can forecast potential changes and attempt to avoid the ones that may not be favourable to on-going effective communication.

Regardless of which grouping someone belongs to, there is an anchor in us, which changes in form with prevailing currents and circumstances we have to deal with. That anchor holds us in place in spite of the tempests of life assailing us and is our constantly evolving sense of self, identity for want of another word. We may know our anchor or choose not to know.

Identifying the ingredients of that anchor, the context in which you are situated, may assist in noting some of the influences that have shaped some of your opinions, such as your sense of what is right or wrong, what is acceptable and what is not, essentially the taken-for-granted notions used to steer us through the complexities of life. It is rather like reserved lanes on a major motorway where you can travel largely uninterrupted to your destination. Such lanes are part of what makes us the unique individuals that we are. We need to be familiar with them as they impact upon others.

The use of our informed selves in building relationships with others is intentional and purposeful. We are engaging with others in a way that provides safe spaces for honest and open dialogue. In this quest to reach out through our awareness of ourselves, plus additional knowledge from a variety of sources about the culture that needs to be shared and checked with the individual(s) we are attempting to engage with, we are exposing our vulnerability, including our acknowledgement that we may not hold all the answers and solutions to the issues that may be raised. We are perpetual students in life and are willing to be taught and we wish to learn.

It is a struggle to change long-standing opinions held personally, particularly when they are shared with the majority. It takes courage and risk. It takes bravery to allow oneself to be vulnerable to such a degree that others are likewise willing to share with you their often hidden truths. It takes a leap of faith to enter into a conversation with someone from a different group when the pathways are not forecast. However, this is the price we pay for being open to changing our thoughts and allowing ourselves to learn anew.

We have choices in life. This fact was poignantly and beautifully written about in The Choice: Embrace the Possible by Dr. Edith Eva Eger, a memoir from one of the few remaining Holocaust survivors. In the foreword by Philip Zimbardo, he describes the mission of Eger as helping “us realize that just as we can act as our own jailors, we can also be our own liberators.” We can reimagine ourselves. We can release ourselves from the group web and strive for contact with others.

Part of this re-imagination is taking time to reflect on oneself, to search for our anchor, our context and the ingredients that it consists of and how they came to be part of you. The next step is to create another version of you, unhindered by the previous trappings of the past. It is difficult and painful, but necessary for you to become your authentic self and then to reach out to others and be more aware of your potential impact on them, whilst already having a clear idea and having the capacity to ameliorate or avoid possible negative outcomes.

In their 2019 book, The Montreal Shtetl: Making Home After the Holocaust, Zelda Abramson and John Lynch outline the stories of Holocaust survivors who settled in Montreal after the Second World War. The book highlights the difficulties of making assumptions about identified cultural groups, the need for an intense focus on the actual experiences and interpretation of those experiences, as held by the subjects of such experiences, and the necessity of addressing the context of such individuals.

The process of engagement is also enlightening in highlighting the complexities of negotiating trust, questioning whether the researcher’s grasp of their stories would be accurate, negotiating the power imbalance between the researchers and those being interviewed and creating “partners in conversation” between the researchers and the interviewees. This was an attempt to capture the experience and meaning through the voices of those who had actually lived through it. The interviewees, the new settlers of Montreal, are the experts on their own lives, not the researchers.

The new settlers all fitted under the group heading of Jewish, but that hid the unique and diverse nature of this group of new immigrants to Montreal. In one of the samples studied, 44 per cent came from Poland, 25 per cent from Hungary, and the remainder came from France, Holland, Germany, Romania, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Such diversity demanded sensitive exploration of backgrounds and the influences of specific ingredients of context that contributed to the identity of each new settler.

Initiating and maintaining contact with strangers takes time, trial and error in communication, especially when exploring deeply sensitive and painful areas of lived experience. Abramson explains in detail how she and her partner John, both Jewish, tried to establish sufficient trust with the research interviewees so that their stories of their experiences before, during, and after the Holocaust and leading up to their arrival in Montreal, could be uncovered and understood by those who had never experienced such circumstances. The crux of the interviews centred on their narratives of settling into Montreal and Canadian life, entering the workplace or creating their own employment.

The result of years of painstaking research and time spent with the interviewees, striving earnestly to ensure that their meanings, interpretations of their lived experience, were accurately captured by the researchers, was a series of multiple stories under three broad themes: Uprooting, Unpacking and Making Home. The book is a wonderful example of bridging cultural groups, modelling sensitivity, successful discourse, learning from each other, seeking to meet one another as equals, acknowledging each individual as experts on their own lives and their interpretation and meanings of that life, and how this has played a role in their evolving identities.

About David Divine

David Divine
Professor David Divine is a published author, columnist, world traveller, and speaker on areas relating to social justice and the lived experiences of individuals and communities. He is managing Director of Footprints Life Coaching. Professor Divine was the James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University from 2004 to 2009, in addition to being a fully-tenured Professor of Social Work. For more information, visit www.daviddivine.co.

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