One of the stated core values of United States culture is respect for
individual and group differences. As a country we have often fallen short of
this value, yet our nation's ethical base and the changing ethnic makeup of our
population demand we seek new ways to ensure that "valuing diversity" becomes
more than a catch-phrase. Given the depth and complexity of problems facing our
nation and world today, we must find ways for leaders in public and private
organizations to create work environments where all individuals can feel valued.
All will then be encouraged to contribute as much as they can to the solutions
we desperately need.
Many leaders in public services, in business, and in education environments
are committed to this and genuinely want to see it happen, yet are continually
disappointed in their efforts to create inclusive, relevant services and/or work
environments. This is an absolutely necessary, watershed area of expertise for
current and future leaders. The expectations of public service and the
maintenance of profitability for private enterprises will increasingly depend on
a leaders' ability to become proficient in cross-cultural skills,
assess culturally different employees accurately, design and implement
programs relevant to many communities, and model these skills for
subordinates. The cost of failure in this area will be far too high for leaders
to choose to ignore cultural competency as an essential area of expertise.
One of the reasons a multicultural work environment has been difficult to
create and sustain is that most individuals are unaware of the differing sets of
communication assumptions, attributions, and especially behaviors that are
normative in various cultures. This document attempts to remedy the lack of
practical instruction in this area.
We do not provide a "checklist" for how to deal with members of culture X, Y,
or Z. This is overly simplistic and patronizing to everyone. We do provide
information in some practical areas of cultural difference. We emphasize norms,
assumptions, and behaviors that often lead to misunderstanding and failure in
attempts to collaborate and develop trusting and comfortable cross-cultural
Degree of Difference and Trust
It may be surprising to find that it is not the degree of difference
between two ethnic groups that causes a loss of trust or even hostilities.
Events in Kosovo, the Middle East, and Rwanda attest to the fact that extreme
hostilities, based on ethnic differences, can emerge even when the differences
between warring ethnic groups are slight when compared to the degree of
difference between those two groups and both groups' differences from other
cultures. An example of large differences NOT leading to problems could
be African Americans and Native Americans. These groups have large differences
in communication style, but a generally high level of comfort and liking for
each other, and a long history of forming alliances.
It is not the degree of difference between groups that causes harm.
Rather, it is the lack of skill in identifying breaches of trust
based on ethnic differences and the lack of skill in restoring
trust once it is
It is beyond the scope of this project to explain how trust can be restored
across ethnic groups, but creating guidelines and training in this area would be
a logical next step in the development of cross-cultural collaboration research.
Adaptation and Individual Difference
Within each of the federally defined "ethnic" groups in the U.S., there are
critical communication-related areas that can serve as major sources of
misunderstanding and misattribution of intent. Following is a short outline of
some of the common areas of cross-cultural communication differences between
major ethnic groups in the U.S.: African Americans, Asian Americans, Anglo or
European Americans, Hispanic Americans/Latinos, and Native Americans.
All members of non-majority culture groups can be conceptualized as living on
a continuum of adaptation to or assimilation into the dominant
culture. The continuum can be graphed like this:
No Cultural Adaptation Total assimilation
- Persons living in total assimilation have adapted to the thinking
patterns, values, family structures, hierarchies of perception, communication
patterns, and forms of recreation of the dominant culture. They manifest
communication behaviors that do not match the usual pattern for members of
their cultural group.
- Persons with little cultural adaptation maintain the traditional patterns
of their culture of origin; their behavior and assumptions will more closely
match the behaviors specified below for their cultural group.
- Most members of a culture will fall somewhere in the middle of the
continnuum. Often their behavors at work and in public settings will reflect
the dominant-culture pattern. This does not mean, however, that their
assumptions and internal reactions to communicative behavior that violates
their group's norms will have changed. A member of a non-dominant culture may
have a continual source of extra workplace stress due to constant violations
of their expectations and norms for interaction, and the ongoing need to
consciously adapt and "fit" their behavior to an alien pattern.
- Depending on a culture's pattern of communication, individuals may not let
you know when their expectations or norms have been violated or when they are
offended, or at least they may not let you know in a way easy for you to
perceive or understand, given the norms of your culture.
- Becoming more aware of the norms for interaction in one's own culture is a
most difficult task, because such norms are internalized very early and become
an unconscious component of our expectations of and behavior with others. It
is a very crucial task, because only through making these norms conscious can
we begin to adapt our behavior to the expectations of the groups or co-workers
we are attempting to collaborate with, or at least lessen our tendency to
misattribute meanings and motivations to others based on our own cultural
- Comparisons of cultural value systems are not meant to stereotype
individuals; rather, they are meant to provide generalizations, valid
observations about a group of people, from which we can discuss
cultural difference and likely areas of miscommunication.
Communication Patterns and Assumptions
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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