Talking Cultural Differences in the Office

6/30/2015

The world’s workplaces are becoming more diverse. That is a fact. But while many employees are happy to welcome colleagues from different backgrounds, they are often at a loss on how to address their differences – or whether those differences need addressing at all.

While most people do not mind talking about their ethnic, religious, national or personal backgrounds, they probably do not want for them to be their defining feature in the workplace. It is best to let individuals take the lead and decide if and when they want to bring it up.

Let’s take a look at an example of a culturally diverse employee who becomes frustrated when her ethnicity is all anyone can talk about in her new office:

Carmela Patel was a new employee at a large advertising firm in New Jersey. She had been working at the firm for two months and was having a hard time feeling comfortable around her colleagues. Carmela was half Italian and half Indian, and because of her “exotic” look and name, her co-workers would directly or indirectly inquire about her ethnic background, usually right away. As these inquiries became redundant and over-emphasized, Carmela grew more and more uncomfortable.

During an informal chat in the office kitchen that veered toward Carmela’s background, her colleague Rebecca noticed Carmela’s discomfort. After Carmela made an excuse to leave the conversation, Rebecca reflected on the situation. She concluded that Carmela probably felt uncomfortable because she saw herself as being singled out based on her ethnicity and would prefer to be judged based on her educational and professional experience, the same standards applied to everyone else.

At a team lunch, when one colleague asked Carmela about the kind of food she ate at home, Rebecca politely interjected and said that it would be fun if they went around the table and all the team members talked about their favorite food. Rebecca could tell from the expression on Carmela’s face that she felt much more comfortable not being “put on the spot,” and rather having everyone in the group take part in sharing their personal tastes.

When it comes to colleagues from different ethnic, religious, national or personal backgrounds, most people find that they have more in common than not. But just because somebody comes from a different culture doesn't mean that they want to talk about it. When interacting with colleagues from other backgrounds, it is important to let them take the lead on if and when they want to talk about their personal culture. Overall, it is important to interact with people who are different the same as one would with anyone else. 

Cheryl Williams