Navigating the Multicultural Work Environment

By: Dr. Daniel Leu

Growing up in Southern California, I’ve been exposed to many cultures; however, working in a multicultural environment is a unique experience. Even if we remove language from the equation, all cultures have their own communication style, hierarchy, and priorities. Navigating diversity requires knowledge, empathy, self-awareness, and skills. Below are some of my experiences.

As an Asian American, my first multicultural working environment was working with Asians and Americans! This sounds absurd, but culture is a distinct blend of ethnicity, background, and geographic location. Aside from traveling, I’ve never lived anywhere; therefore, I was never exposed to the cultures of other United States environments. Moreover, I’ve only visited Asia for short periods as a child. So, the first time I met our vendor from Taiwan or a customer from Wisconsin, it was a culture shock. We spoke the same languages and ate similar foods, but I can still remember the first time I experienced the differences in communication styles and terminology. Growing up in the States, we are more direct and expressive because the general American culture is lower context. The Taiwanese culture is higher context; therefore, they’re less direct, and you need to decipher the meaning. For example, when the vendor insisted that he didn’t want to intrude on our private time to take him to the mall, he indirectly said he wanted us to take him. Also, coming from a lower-context culture, we need to be more mindful of what and how we say things to someone from a higher-context background.

During this time, I also discovered that multicultural differences can occur within the same country. Many of our customers were in the eastern and midwestern parts of the United States. Although we spoke the same language and shared similar interests, we had cultural differences. We would use different words to represent the same thing, have sayings unique to that region, or greet each other differently. Even our accents are different. Professionally, our definitions of value, agreements, and commitment also varied. The differences can easily result in misunderstandings.

We must know the pros and cons when working in an environment with many different cultures. This is an excellent opportunity to interact and learn from others with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. We can discover new ways to approach and solve problems, but we also need better communication and understanding. Working in a multicultural environment also requires people who are openminded because studies have shown that people usually gravitate toward others who share similar cultures. As the common phrase says, “Birds of a feather flock together.” Therefore, the diverse work environments I’ve experienced will develop small groups determined by race and culture. Breaking into these small groups will require understanding and genuine acceptance of the group’s culture.

Lastly, we must also remember that language is a considerable aspect of culture. Our languages and cultures are mutually inclusive. I’ve had colleagues whose maiden languages are Mandarin, Korean, Hindi, Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Polish, to name a few. Therefore, many of them have accents when they speak English. Remember that an accent is not an indicator of intelligence. Instead, like the comedian Trevor Noah says, an accent is simply a person speaking your language using the rules of their native language. You may only initially comprehend some of what they are saying because of the accent; however, be patient and understanding. They are trying to communicate with you in a second or third language, so cut them slack. Give them more credit and appreciate their efforts. 

Working in a multicultural environment is inevitable, especially in Southern California; therefore, you must be aware of the challenges and embrace the benefits. It is essential to be understanding, considerate, empathetic, and open to our differences because it will help you gain additional perspectives. However, realizing that you do not need to accept or believe everything is crucial. The knowledge will help improve communication, benefiting teamwork, production, and morale. It is not about right or wrong, good or bad. Instead, we are trying to learn from each other and utilize our strengths to help achieve a common goal.