Bringing together the mosaic
Taking into account different cultural practices and preferences when planning events is growing in importance in Canada, a country with a diverse population. A recent survey published by Statistics Canada shows that of the 35.1 million people who live in Canada today, 20.6 are foreign-born. As three speakers with vastly different backgrounds share from their experience, applying a combination of forethought, courtesy and awareness can make everyone feel included in events and give them a sense that their contributions are valued.
Respect: The Baseline for Understanding
JJ Brun was in a tough situation. As a member of the Allied Military Intelligence Battalion working in war-torn Boznia-Herzegovina in the early 90s, his job as a contact handler looked nearly impossible. His task was to establish and build relationships with local authorities, ascertain their intentions and level of support and report back to his military commanders. First, he had to find a way past the fact that the local population was a mix of three different ethnic groups who spoke different languages, came from different cultures and were at war with each other. That was just one challenge – ensuring his findings would be understood back at headquarters was another. The mission itself was made up of troops from more than a dozen different nationalities, all having to use English as the working language.
JJ quickly realized that the key to doing the job well was to gain an understanding of the way the various people he encountered viewed the world. That meant finding a way to connect with them by design, rather than simply relying on chance. By the time he left for home, he had built one of the largest networks of local contacts in the region, pulling in human intelligence that was critical and timely to decision making in aid of establishing peace. Although he didn’t know it then, the insights and tools he developed in the midst of that conflict would prove invaluable in another career.
As principal of JJ Communications, Inc., JJ, better known as “The Retired Spy,” now teaches business leaders and organizations how decoding human capital can make the best use of their resources in today’s multicultural workplace. The baseline for understanding a person, JJ believes, is respect for their model of the world. That model, he says, is constructed by a combination of each individual’s life experience and nature. Labelling people or pigeonholing them does nothing more than taint the information.
“People often react to different cultural practices with the thought ‘Why can’t you be normal like me?’” JJ says. “But what’s normal? In Africa, people often communicate through stories. In North America we’re more direct. We focus on the bottom line,” he says. “Achieving an open, fresh, non-biased attitude towards people of different cultures isn’t always easy, especially if your view has been influenced by negative reports in the media. You’ll do better if you learn to respond to people, rather than simply react.”
As the organizer of the Fast Track program for new speakers offered by the Ottawa Chapter of the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers, JJ recently had an opportunity to put theory into practice. Realizing that the group included new Canadians, he devised an end-of-program survey and offered participants the choice between filling it out on paper or providing feedback orally. That simple step went a long way to making everyone comfortable with providing feedback.
Think Past Intent to Impact
No one is more aware of Canada’s diversity than Ruth Sirman, principal of CanMediate International, a company that provides a wide range of services to organizations dealing with conflict. Ruth regularly criss-crosses the country and travels north of the Arctic Circle to provide training, act as a mediator and facilitator or consult on organizational conflict processes. In one mediation session she conducted recently, a group of 32 people represented 28 countries.
She also speaks at events abroad and is careful to prepare before each trip. Language is one area where she pays special attention, even if the meeting or conference is going to be conducted in English. You have to keep it simple and clear, she says, and avoid colloquial language in both written materials and spoken words. “People may be reading a handout or listening to someone speak in their second, third or even fourth language. I ask listeners to gesture if they’ve missed something. Then, if they do, I offer another simple explanation,” says Ruth.
Body language is another area that can be very different, she says. “In some cultures, for instance, nodding means No not Yes. Or, it may mean that someone is listening without indicating agreement – a difference that has the potential to create major misunderstandings. It’s important to find out the norms for verbal and non-verbal communication in different cultures as well as the dos and don’ts regarding courtesy, clothing, food and humour.”
Ruth takes a similar approach to designing exercises so that activities don’t put people in awkward situations. Asking people to work closely together or to share personal information can backfire depending on who is in the room she says. “Different cultures have different boundaries as to what is appropriate to ask people to do and what questions are considered ‘personal’ and would be seen as intrusive,” she says. “Always keep in mind that there can be a big difference between your intent and its impact on others. Their willingness to engage will depend on their comfort level with you, the rest of the group and the nature of what is being asked of them.”
Silence does not equal consent or agreement, so it’s important to be cautious about assuming that everything is okay, cautions Ruth. “Don’t be afraid to manage an event by walking around. Keep your eyes and ears open to what’s happening. Are people participating or not? And, if not, what’s up?”
Ruth also advises people who are concerned with avoiding missteps to seek out a trusted source and engage in a frank and open conversation prior to an event or trip.
Despite the most sincere efforts to prepare and remain aware, it’s still easy to make mistakes when dealing with people from other cultures Ruth says. “A faux pas doesn’t have to be the end of the world. If you do make a gaff, address it as soon as you can following this process: acknowledge the error, apologize, do your best to make it right and don’t do it again.”
Cross-Cultural Communications: a Necessity
Paying attention to cross-cultural communications in the workplace has gone from being a nicety to a necessity says Tina Varughese, president of a Calgary-based company called t-Works that specializes in cross-cultural communications. “Now that one in five Canadians is foreign born, chances are practically any meeting or conference is going to involve people from different cultures, many of whom speak English as a second language,” says Tina.
To help events go smoothly, Tina advises meeting planners to pay special attention to three areas: food choices, event communications and social media. In terms of food, something as simple as making sure that egg salad and vegetarian sandwiches are served on platters separate from sandwiches that contain meat can go a long way to ensuring everyone is comfortable.
Encouraging speakers to accompany their words with visuals that reinforce their points is also a big help to audience members who may not have a perfect grasp of the language Tina says. “People can often read a second language better than they can follow it being spoken. So, showing slides that reinforce key ideas and distributing handouts are great aids to understanding.”
Social media provides a communications channel with people who may be uncomfortable communicating directly with speakers or facilitators. By giving them another means to ask questions or contribute to the discussion, event organizers can do a lot to help everyone participate in the conversation. For that reason, Tina says meeting planners should arrange Twitter hashtags and encourage speakers to share electronic contact information.
Seating is another area where a simple planning decision can have a big impact on participants. Putting people at round tables is well documented as a means of making people feel included and for encouraging interaction. Similarly, Tina says giving speakers the option of wearing a lapel mic so they can move around the room instead of standing behind a lectern can stimulate interaction and heighten participants’ sense of inclusion.
When it comes to the way Canadians communicate, Tina describes our cultural norm as falling dead centre between indirect and direct styles of communication. Even on this issue we tend to sit on the fence, she jokes. However, she emphasizes that communications style is a matter to consider carefully when planning meetings. Tina recommends always creating an agenda and setting time limits for each item as a means of keeping everyone on track.
At the same time, she warns planners against selling quiet participants short. In some cultures, she says, in particular those of Southeast Asia, reflection is more highly valued than thinking on your feet. “The person who sits at the table in quiet contemplation while a discussion rages around them may have a great deal to offer given the right encouragement to contribute,” she says.
Similarly, people should be slow to judge behaviour that seems rude or difficult Tina warns. What might come across as impolite or contrary may simply be a case of someone using a different communications style rooted in culture. Likewise, a speaker who sees a good chunk of the audience at work on their mobile devices shouldn’t assume they’ve lost interest in the presentation. They may simply be using translation apps to follow along.
Taking steps to make everyone feel included in meetings and conferences regardless of cultural background doesn’t have to be a daunting challenge. Becoming aware, thinking ahead, and briefing and properly supporting everyone who has a role in the event will go a long way to ensuring success. “It’s also good to remember that, for all the differences, there is one thing people of all cultures share,” says Tina. “We all understand the meaning of a smile.”
Wendy Cherwinski heads up Echelon Communications Inc., specializing in speechwriting, presentation design and workshops/webinars for writers and speakers. She’s also a member of CAPS Ottawa. www.echeloncomm.ca
Appeared in Speaking of Impact, Fall 2013 Edition