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Ten Myths That Prevent Collaboration Across Cultures

Immigrant and other cultural groups in the U.S. have been and are forced to play a "game." The game is called "Assimilation." It means giving up your own values and adopting the values of others, as a means to "success" or economic survival. No one enjoys forced or coerced assimilation, by the Borg, the dominant culture, or anyone else. The process is not only uncomfortable, it hurts; it is a violation of anotherís identity and inner self.

Those of us brought up as members of the dominant culture may fight total assimilation in our own ways, vicariously through anti-heroes in the movies, by contesting unfair rules of organizations, and other means.

Those of us brought up as members of other traditions, however, are often in conflict. We may fight assimilation by the dominant culture, by our traditional culture, or both. That leaves us in a difficult situation. In the next few years we will number approximately half of the population in the United States. Assimilation is an emerging issue that must be dealt with for successful management and delivery of services during the next century.

Assimilation is actually a false game; at some level we all know this. The real choice is not "assimilation" or "traditional values." We know that we can learn to understand and appreciate the values, expectations, and communication styles of other traditions without giving up our own. We can adjust appropriately and effectively to different values and communication styles if we learn how to first perceive and then adapt to them. Such understanding is called multicultural competence. Virtually all of us lack it.

We are conditioned from birth to not have cultural competence in any culture but our own; instead we are usually socialized to appreciate only the culture in which we are reared.

Understanding that almost all of us lack this, how do we help all of our staff to gain IT, (multicultural competence) so they CAN administer or provide services in a more effective manner? One way is to begin to break down the myths and lack of understanding we have regarding other cultures and our attempts to collaborate with them.

Myths

1. That simply by virtue of membership in a cultural group, a person will be able to deal with others of that population in a culturally competent way. Not true.

If such persons have assimilated the values and communication styles of the Anglo culture as their own, they may be even less tolerant of traditional values or styles than Anglos. Equally important, they may not be trusted by their own communities if they have internalized Anglo values.

2. That a member of a minority community who works in a mainstream agency is able to represent his or her community. Not true.

Unless they are respected leaders within their communities, they are not considered by their communities to be appropriate representatives. Respected elders often provide leadership within ethnic communities. However, the elders often have no role of visibility or authority within the Anglo culture and must be "found." In order to have an effective relationship with the ethnic community, trust and respect from the elders must be gained first.

3. That a single member of "the" minority community can represent the whole. Not true.

For example, there really is no "Hispanic community" in most cities. There are, rather, Hispanic communities. Individuals from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Spain, and Peru, for example, would not consider themselves to be from the "same" community. We speak of the African American community, the Hispanic community, the Asian Community, and the Native American community, when there really are no such communities. An analogy may help clarify this myth:

Our view is like that of residents in a remote village in Australia when the first tourist bus arrives. The villagers think that the visiting European Americans, Russians, and Italians are all from the same community because they look so much alike (compared to the native Australians). The villagers do notice that the tourists speak, look, move, and dress somewhat differently from each other, but those differences are trivial compared to how different the tourists as a group are from themselves.

The villagers then appoint one of the tourists as the representative, for not only this group, but for all of the tourists that may someday arrive from different touring companies and countries.

The analogy may sound absurd, but it is sadly accurate.

4. That an agency should chose a representative from a minority community to represent that community's interests to the agency. Not true.

Anglo agencies should not presume to select representatives for ethnic communities. Each community already has a leadership structure. Rather, the agency's task is to identify the structure and then find a common ground for communication, working with existing leadership in the particular community.

5. That, because there are so many ethnic communities, it is not feasible, or cost-effective to have working relationships with them. Not true.

Selecting a minority representative will not work, but selecting a minority liaison can work. The role of the liaison is not to represent a community, but rather to understand the community's leadership structure, to win the trust and respect of that leadership, and to develop a working relationship between the community and the agency. In order to do this successfully, the liaison must be multiculturally competent.

6. That the Anglo or dominant culture is the U.S. culture, not simply a culture. Not true.

This is one of the most difficult myths, not from a logical point of view, but because of invisible assumptions and expectations. For most people reared as Anglo Americans, Anglo American assumptions and expectations are presumed, unconsciously, to be "human" assumptions and expectations. If we see someone speaking with a certain pitch of voice and gestures, we assume that the person is agitated or angry; we rarely conceive the thought that we might be misinterpreting their behavior because of our own cultural norms. If someone else seems indifferent to a suggestion, again, we think that we understand what we see. Our culturally based assumptions and interpretations are so completely ingrained that we experience them spontaneously--and invisibly.

Members of all cultures tend to internalize and become consciously unaware of their own norms. For members of a dominant group in a culture this condition is exaggerated; they are usually surrounded by people and institutions based on their set of values. Thus that system is constantly reinforced, and they have less exposure to contrasting values and behaviors than do members of minority groups.

7. That the key differences in culture are lifestyle, language, foods, and similar visible evidence of diversity, often taught in "diversity appreciation" classes in public schools. Not true.

The key differences, the "trust and respect breakers," are not generally the obvious differences. It is often the invisible differences in expectations, values, goals, and communication styles that cause cultural differences to be misinterpreted as personal violations of trust or respect. To assist in unraveling these key differences, we developed the Normative Communication Styles and Values chart.

8. That cultural competence is something we each pick up, with time, by working with persons who are different from ourselves. Not true.

Cultural competence is a skill, and perhaps an ability that requires substantial effort to learn. Working with someone from a different ethnic tradition does not necessarily lead to uncovering differences in expectations, communication styles, and values. An analogy is that of a married couple that has lived together 50 years or more. Even they can fail to learn each other's underlying assumptions, expectations, and communication styles. Instead of learning these invisible differences, they develop a reliable and consistent misinterpretation, which leads to predictability in the relationship, not understanding.

9. That collecting information from a community can be "task-based" rather than "relationship-based." Not True.

The basis for collecting information in many non-Anglo American households is personal. That is, the accuracy of the information given to a collector of information will be related to how well that person is known and trusted, not how important the information seems to be. This is a difference in values between Anglo American and other cultures. Whether the person collecting the data is from the U.S. Census, the local university, or any other place that might have credibility for Anglo Americans, this will not ensure credibility or cooperation in other communities.

One consequence of this difference, since Anglo American agencies are usually in charge of data collection, is that information gathered regarding communities is often inaccurate; needs of the communities are often severely under reported.

The solution is not to send someone to the door that "looks" as if he or she fits in the neighborhood. The solution needs to be personal. The person answering the door needs to already know and trust the person collecting the information in order for the results to have strong validity. In order to do this, the agency needs to work with the existing leadership structure of the community to develop a mutually acceptable method of collecting valid information.

10. That written information is more reliable, valid, and substantial than verbal information.

Again, a very deep Anglo American value that is not shared by a number of other cultures. If the person gathering the information is writing down what is said, this often reduces credibility with minority cultures. Very bad experiences have resulted from allowing someone from outside the community to write down accurate personal or household information, such as "How many people live in this household?"

For accurate community information to be obtained, trusted community informants need to be engaged in the information collection process. They may need to collect the information without pen in hand and the information may need to be collected in a comfortable place away from the informant's home.

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References

First Chapter
Executive Summary and List of Chapters

Candia Elliott, Diversity Training Associates
R. Jerry Adams, Ph.D., Evaluation and Development Institute
Suganya Sockalingam, Ph.D., Office of Multicultural Health, Department of Human Resources, Oregon
September 1, 2010

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