University of California at Berkeley

Health Beat: Aim for Respectful Communication

 by Dianne Rush Woods

Our campus has the good fortune to include a rich ethnic blend. Within our diverse workplace, the staff is comprised of 57.1 percent white, 16.2 percent black, 15.9 percent Asian, 9.7 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Native American, according to Edith Ng, director, Staff Affirmative Action and Diversity Programs.

There are great advantages to this diversity. However, there are times when communication across racial and cultural lines can be difficult or stressful. This has been heightened by the current flurry of political activity around issues of affirmative action and immigration.

Many people think they should downplay differences among us, but most social scientists agree that ignoring differences and pretending that they don't exist has not worked.

"In fact, these differences add to the richness and value of the workplace, providing us with continuous opportunities for learning from each other," says Ng.

Because we filter our interactions with others through our various cultural screens or beliefs, it is important to become aware of your communication style when speaking to someone of another culture or ethnicity. Respecting diversity and cultural differences requires flexibility. For both the sender and receiver of messages, the following suggestions can improve communication.

Treat each person as an individual. To avoid stereotyping someone, try not to make assumptions based on what a person looks like. There are tremendous differences within racial, ethnic, religious, gender and other groups.

There is no shared universal understanding of certain terms such as "affirmative action" and "immigration." And some terms, such as "boy" or "gal," that may be neutral for one person can be insulting to another.

Remember that we all have been raised with biases and ethnocentric views. Our values and beliefs are filtered through or in reaction to this upbringing.

Although we control how and what we say, the listener controls what she/he hears. What someone hears can be influenced by past experiences, work stress, even the morning's commute.

Pay attention to the words and feelings. Slow down, think first and take the time to say what you mean. Know that voice tone, body language and eye contact also communicate a lot to others.

Be aware of comments that others may consider culturally insensitive or blatantly racist. The receiver may appear defensive, avoid eye contact, or distance themselves. Review what was said. Meet with the person to ask if something said was hurtful or wrong. Allow him or her the opportunity to respond.

We all need to learn to understand and tolerate differences. Our different cultures and lifestyles can mean we all behave differently from each other. If confused or upset by someone's behavior, ask what is behind the behavior. It can create much less defensiveness if the question is "what..." rather than "why do you act that way?"

Scars don't always show. People who work closely with us may be carrying emotional scars and pain. These feelings can derive from their own experiences with discrimination and/or experiences of their family or community. Casual, careless comments may elicit a stronger response than anticipated.

We want to continue working, learning and growing together. No matter what is said in the workplace today, it may be remembered for a long time. Supportive comments -- genuine interest and appreciation of other cultures -- are usually well-noted by the recipient. We can learn from successful encounters and not spend our life stepping on eggshells in order to address diversity issues. It is important to think clearly about how we communicate and to remember it is influenced through the filter of culture and ethnicity.


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