Communication is the key to so many things a
steward does, and good communication skills are something experienced
stewards develop. But even experienced stewards have special
challenges when the communication is between people of different
cultures. (By "culture" we mean common experiences,
understandings, ways of thinking, feeling, acting and communicating.)
Chances are your workplace has gotten more
diverse in recent years. Whether you're working around people from
many parts of the glove or just different parts of the country, or in
some cases maybe even just your city, you are likely to find that there
are different cultures among your co-workers.
When people from different cultures try to
communicate sometimes there are misunderstandings or worse, hard
feelings. If you find that you are not connecting with all your
members, especially those who are different from you, these tips on
cross cultural communications may be of help.
Lean About Different Cultures
The first thing you may want to do is learn
about the different cultures in your workplace. This can be done
by reading, surfing the internet or simply asking your co-workers about
You may learn some interesting fascinating
and very helpful things. For example, people from Russia or other
communist countries are often suspicious of unions based on the role of
unions played in their former homes. On the other hand, people
from the West Indies might be impatient with the union because in their
home countries unions have more rights and support.
To avoid misunderstandings, learn the
various customs your co-workers may have in personal exchanges like
shaking hands, making eye contact and speaking out in groups.
One caution: Knowing about a culture
is just a guide that might help you understand and relate to someone
from that culture. Do not look for a "roadmap" for relating to
everyone from a particular culture. Everyone's different, and
someone with a background in a certain culture may not display all
or even any of the aspects of that culture. Beware of stereotypes.
Take Time, Listen, Paraphrase
Good listening is always vital, but it is
especially important when communicating with someone from a different
culture. Let the person finish his or her thoughts. Do not
form any conclusions until you are sure you really understand what was
said and done. Relax, be flexible, and be open to the possibility
that your co-worker is using words in ways different from the way you
Be prepared to respectfully ask for
clarification or further explanation. For example: "I want
to make sure I understand what you are saying. You said the
supervisor wasn't polite. Can you give me an example?"
A good skill is use in paraphrasing.
This is when you repeat back to a person what you think you heard him or
her say. For example: "What I hear you saying is the
supervisor raised his voice to you and used swear words, is that right?"
Work on Your Delivery
When talking, be aware of how you might
sound to someone who is not familiar with certain words, gestures and
tones. Avoid slang, jargon or initials that everyone may not
understand. Also remember that sarcasm and many jokes don't
translate well across cultures, and adjust your delivery accordingly.
Take your time and look for cues as to
whether your listeners are understanding what you're saying, or if they
are confused or offended. Perhaps your hand gestures make them
uncomfortable or give a message that you didn't intend. Maybe they
don't know what the labor board is and aren't comfortable enough to ask.
Perhaps you used a common expression without realizing that it has
negative racial, ethnic or sexual overtones.
Try to create a comfortable atmosphere and
ask for feedback to see what your listeners are getting from your
delivery. Do not just ask if they understand, because many people
will say yes even if they really do not. Ask open-ended questions
about the content of your message. For example: "What has
been your experience with the new rule we have been discussing?"
Understand and appreciate the world view of
others. Don't assume that the way you see or do things is "normal"
and they are the odd ones. Respect and learn from the differences.
And, finally, a twist on the golden rule.
What you find acceptable may not be appropriate for everyone. For
example: In a class I taught for members of a health care union I
found that many people were calling each other, "Mr." or "Mrs." or
"Ms.," while I much preferred to have people use my first name. In
that case my golden rules was "treat others as they want to be treated."
Ken Margolies. The writer is a labor
education faculty at Cornell University. (Steward
Update Volume Sixteen, Number Five)