No matter what your past experiences are and what your preconceived notions might be, you cannot assume sameness. See an example of how a multicultural workgroup sits and talks around a table.
- Several years ago, my mother, born and raised in Mumbai, India, came to visit me in the U.S. And I took her shopping at a local mall. It wasn't long before she walked up to a stranger, who she assumed was from India, and began chatting her up in Hindi. I was mortified when the woman, visibly surprised, said, "Sorry, I'm from Chicago, I speak English." Having moved to the cultural melting pot of the United States over 30 years ago, I quickly learned to never to presume where someone was from and what language they speak.
But my mother lives in Athens, Greece, and she had not considered that possibility because she's not exposed to it. We all make assumptions. Sometimes we assume similarity, and other times we have preconceived, and even unconscious notions, that can lead to biases. There are times where bias comes from non-verbals, and the assumptions made about person's experience or knowledge based on their perceived age. One of those quick assumptions created an unfortunate situation for my husband when he attended a PhD student's thesis presentation.
Even though it was his first year as an associate professor, he posed a controversial question about a statistical analysis. He didn't realize that his casual dress and youthful demeanor influenced the harsh comment made by the head of the research study. You mean to say that anyone off the street can come into this meeting and make comments? Yikes. The lead professor who said that assumed that my husband was another student. He didn't consider that he might belong there as a faculty member.
Since that day, my husband has worn a tie to numerous meetings. And whadda you know? The comments seemed to be less arbitrary. Now, let's bring this home. Imagine you're in a workplace meeting. If you look around the table, can you tell if everyone is of a specific nationality, country, or religion? Or, can you tell who has an advanced degree, who is bi or tri lingual, or who has extensive working experience? If these are not questions you're asking yourself, you may want to pause, reconsider, and put attention to it.
It's important to learn to catch ourselves when we jump to conclusions. We need to remember not to assume anything until we have more information. Let's keep this in mind as we learn how to communicate across cultures.