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Challenges and Strategies

Here is a small collection of challenges to think through. Each challenge is followed by a few strategies. If you have had intercultural experiences, you know this is just a start!

1. Assuming sameness

Anticipate that a variety of backgrounds and world views will be present in any group of people. Never assume the group holds the same values or beliefs as you do. Be ready to articulate the rationales and belief systems behind your suggestions.

2. Stereotyping a cultural or national background

Imagine, if someone tried to judge you solely on the basis of your national or cultural background. Within any one group the individual, family, and generational differences are huge. Any knowledge we have of a group is usually dated and based on limited experience.

3. Thinking everyone has had the same experiences and opportunities

The experiences of various age groups, genders, and occupational groups vary greatly. Don't expect that a young person from Korea will have had the same teenaged life as a young person from Kitchener. In Grade 12, he/she would much more likely have had after-school tutoring than an after-school job.

4. Thinking being nice is enough

Smiling and being friendly are wonderful, but they are not enough to create cultural safety. Individuals need to feel respected and welcome to share.

5. Not checking your own assumptions

Assuming, for example, that newcomers should feel lucky to be in Kitchener-Waterloo is just an assumption. Many have sacrificed better lifestyles, tight family connections, satisfying careers, closeness to cultural connections, and religious supports to come and study or work in Canada. The homesickness, loneliness, and sense of disconnectedness that follow all of us during major uprooting should be expected.

6. Not using a person-first philosophy

Thinking or referring to student or group of students as the "Indian Students" or the "Chinese Guys" is indicative of subconscious de-humanization. Use person-first language to remind yourself and others that country of origin is just one important and interesting aspect of the person or people referred to. Say, the "students from India" or the "guys from China." Even this small linguistic change can build your intercultural sensitivity as it will remind you to think of individuals first.

7. Not dealing with past negative experiences

Maybe you have had a few negative experiences with an individual(s) from a particular background. You need to work through that experience so that you do not resist what could be a quite different outcome with a new human being from that background. You could even share what happened with this new person and through debriefing realize that there was a lot of personality or context involved as well as culture or that you did not understand the significance of something from that person's culture.

8. Thinking that codes and symbols mean the same thing to everyone

Every culture has its own concepts and expectations. For example, in Canada, teenager is often a code for a time in life when one is expected to experiment, flaunt the rules, and establish independence. In another culture, teenager might be code for finish maturing, learn responsibility, and help support the family or study to bring in future support.

9. Expecting that all cultures value people for the same reasons

What provides status in one culture is not often the same in another. While one culture may value being opinionated and strong at debating, another culture may value peace-keeping within an easy-going style and yet another culture may consider quiet reserve a sign of a good upbringing. In one culture, age may automatically confer a higher status, while in another, education or position are better regarded. In one culture keeping yourself free of children is admired, while in another, having a dozen children is celebrated.

10. Thinking communication strategies are universally acceptable

In North American, British-origin culture, gently mocking or complaining about family members is quite allowable, while in many other cultures, doing anything to lower your family status is considered quite shocking. In some cultures, complimenting quite strongly is a form of social glue, but in English-speaking, British-background culture, it is usually suspected as "buttering someone up" (an idiomatic expression meaning praising someone so they are more likely to agree to a request).

11. Not checking openness or cheerfulness levels

How much we disclose to others, when we first meet them, varies dramatically by culture and generation. Don't assume, that just because someone seems very private or not talkative at the beginning, they won't become a close friend in time. In some cultures, one reveals very little until trust is built. In English-speaking, British-background Canadian culture, the valence of a conversation is expected to stay quite positive, while in many other cultures negativity and passionate argument is welcome.

12. Expecting newcomers to the English language to catch denotations (what an expression means) and connotations (the feeling an expression gives) in all cases

It takes years of experience in a new language to be able to express or interpret meaning quickly and accurately. As a native speaker of English, I know we distinguish between the adjectives for a chubby baby and a plump chicken and that slender is more positive than thin, but think how hard it is to be as clear as you want to be, when you learn another language! Re-phrase, when someone has not caught your meaning, and don't be afraid to ask for re-phrasing from someone else. If you use an idiomatic expression such as "That was quite the about face," be prepared to re-phrase.

13. Failing to take into account the challenges of intonation in a new language

Subtle difference in the way we say something can change a statement such as "She's smart" from a compliment to a sarcastic remark to a question. If someone speaks English as a second language and sounds different than you expected (pushier, whinier, more flattering, less sincere etc.), don't jump to conclusions. Say, "I feel like you are being a bit _____. Is that what you intended?"

14. Not recognizing that haptics (touching behavior) is culturally based

Non-verbal communication expectations differ dramatically between cultures with some cultures having lots of touching between genders, some lots intra-gender, and some with very limited touching even amongst close friends. In British-background Canadian culture there is little touching: kids stop holding hands with parents in grade school, hugs are not chest to chest, and casual touches are reserved for close relationships.

15. Thinking that time orientation is the same across the globe

There is a cultural continuum of time orientation with some cultures absolutely believing in the clock (monochronic) and some much more tied to the moon, the seasons, and the demands of interpersonal relationships (polychronic). English-speaking, British-background Canadians are typically at the monochronic end of the spectrum feeling that even 5 minutes late is so serious that it could cost you a job interview.

16. Thinking that all cultures prefer the same social approach

Many English-speaking Canadians are used to a social approach that includes eye contact, a continuous smile, and head-nodding accompanied by light chit-chat and, at the most, a casual invitation for coffee sometime. Other cultures might have a more serious approach or a more fun-oriented approach. Many cultures include invitations for coffee or to "come home" as part of indicating the desire for a social relationship. In fact, in many cultures the person who invites will pay for the coffee, whereas in Canada, both parties often pay for themselves, when they go for a coffee. Friendships may develop more slowly and cautiously.

17. Expecting others to understand one's own social rules

Some people express the idea that a person entering a new cultural situation should figure out the rules. However, cultural rules are quite difficult to understand and implement. For example, in Canadian English, if someone has a moderate degree of power over you, you might make a request saying, "Could you check this for me?" If they have a higher degree of power, you might say, "Would it be possible for you to check this for me?" On the same level of power, you could say, "Can you check this for me?" To a subordinate, you might say, "Check this." The nuances of culture and language are not easy to figure out as anyone who has tried to learn a language or live in a new culture can testify to. If you can serve as a "cultural broker" and help someone else to understand the issues at play, this is far more helpful than being judgmental.

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