Communicating well across different cultures, backgrounds and experiences is an important skill. Here, experts from across campus give tips on how to navigate these sometimes fraught conversations.
“Consciously or unconsciously, a lot of us find it a chore to work with people whose English is not strong. Whether we want to admit it or not, some of us think it is a waste of our time to engage them in conversation. Engaging them calls for intentionality. If we are not thinking about it, then we are more likely to overlook people whose English is not strong. We have to be intentional about hearing from them and aware of our own prejudices. If we truly value other people’s opinions and believe that they have important ideas to offer, then we need to be patient enough to encourage them to participate.”
—Edem Dzunu, a native of Ghana, works for WashU’s English Language Program and is founder of Baobab People, a nonprofit that seeks to connect people from different cultures through dialogue and learning.
Show an interest
“Most people from other cultures appreciate people who show an interest in their culture. You may not know a lot — or anything — about certain cultures, so let people know up front. I’ve seen people’s faces drop when someone introduces themselves and says something like, ‘I’m from Myanmar.’ [But you can] just say, ‘Oh, I’m not familiar with Myanmar. Can you tell me about it?’ It opens up an avenue of conversation. If something happens, and you see someone reacting negatively to something you said or did, you can say, ‘I’m worried I might have offended you. Did I?’ But be careful. This could go too far. You don’t want someone to always be the spokesperson for their country or culture.”
—Kathy Steiner-Lang, MSW ’82, is assistant vice chancellor and director of the Office for International Students and Scholars.
“Make friends with a native. That was the first thing I tried to do when I came to the U.S. I was kind of adopted by two American friends, so I got accustomed to everyday life fairly quickly. You really have to accustom yourself to the everyday in a new country: the daily use of the language, how the people behave, how they respond to you. Culture shock really is everything. It’s very subtle, but it’s not something that you can describe or name. It’s just your day in and day out.”
—Letty Chen, associate professor of modern Chinese language and literature and head of the Chinese section in East Asian languages and cultures, moved to the United States from Taiwan when she was in her early 20s.
Listen to understand
“Listen very deeply. Often, we’re listening and already formulating our response. Also, when we talk to folks from different cultural backgrounds, it’s important to believe their experience. Often, it’s hard to hold back shock or disbelief if someone is telling you an experience that may not be part of your experience. Listening to understand is about being OK with the personal narrative. And don’t be afraid to ask questions, such as ‘Is this what I’m understanding from you? What do you need from me?’ It’s OK for us to have some humility and to say, ‘I’m not familiar with this situation. I don’t know if I’m getting this right, but I’m going to ask you the question. I’m going to listen; I’m going to try to understand.’”
—Emelyn dela Peña is associate vice chancellor for student affairs and dean, Center for Diversity and Inclusion (CDI). The CDI provides support for students from traditionally underrepresented or marginalized populations.
Focus on the job at hand
“We studied leaders of community service teams and how the behavior of the leader can either exacerbate conflict or quell conflict in groups where people have different values. We found that if leaders are highly individually considerate, that tends to increase conflict and degrade performance. In contrast, if a leader is more focused on the work of the group and provides more guidance around what the group should be doing, that reduces conflict and leads to better performance. So, let’s say half the people in a group want to take it easy and the other half think that work is life. If the leader were to encourage everybody’s perspective, people would feel emboldened to act on their beliefs. As a result, you’re going to have half the group thinking that their colleagues aren’t working as hard, and that could cause problems. In contrast, if you have a leader who says, ‘We’re going to work eight hours today,’ then it makes it less likely that the individually held values are going to lead to conflict and disruption in the group.”
—Andrew Knight is an associate professor of organizational behavior at Olin Business School. One of his areas of research is how to manage and work in teams of people who have different values.
Find what unites you
“When you’re working in a group of people with diverse values, you have to find what’s called a superordinate identity. Don’t focus on your own little subgroup of people who have the same values. Instead try to identify some common ground with the entire group. In many cases, that common ground will be the reason people came and joined that group in the first place.”
Illustrations by Monica Duwel