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How to Use Comparisons of Cultural Patterns

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 alliances.

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 broken.

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
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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 norms.

  6. 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.

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Communication Patterns and Assumptions

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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
January 1, 2016

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