This piece originally appeared on The Well, Jopwell’s digital magazine, and is written by Katie Williamson.
As someone who did not grow up a minority, cultural sensitivity never really crossed my mind — until I stepped foot on Argentinian soil three months after graduating college. Working with an international team who didn’t know me or my customs taught me to appreciate the differences in our cultures and the importance of cultural sensitivity.
Cultural sensitivity allows you to understand and learn about people whose cultural background is not the same as yours. Notice this doesn’t talk about assigning positive or negative values to culture, and it also isn’t suggesting we treat all cultures as if they are the same. Yes, there are similarities across cultures, but the value of cultural sensitivity is in evaluating and appreciating all the ways we differ.
While working for a nonprofit in Argentina is very different from my current marketing role at PerkSpot, the experience translates to my life in a 9-to-5, where I work with a diverse and exciting workforce. From Argentina to Chicago, here are a few lessons I’ve carried with me.
It’s really easy in today’s world to put your head down and focus only on the work in front of you. But, as our work becomes more and more interconnected, it’s important that we also take the time to get to know our colleagues. Ask questions about their previous work and experience to help you understand their background. Spend time learning about their culture. Quickly following my experience overseas, I worked for a manager from an extremely task-oriented culture. Because Latin American culture is more relationship-focused, I had to reassess the expectations of my team and my manager. By understanding their framework, I was able to perform more effectively and with less frustration.
When working with a cross-cultural team, conflict is virtually inevitable. While the conflict may seem small at the time, it’s important to address it immediately to avoid any built-up tension. Confused about why she chose to address you that way? Or why he hasn’t completed that task you requested weeks ago? Communicate openly and honestly about how you’re feeling and ask for more understanding. Remember to approach the conflict with an open mind and empathy. Chances are there is a reason for every behavior. By discovering exactly what that is, you’ll be able to work together more successfully in the future.
Big words with big implications. Ethnocentrism, or the perception of your own culture as better than others, is extremely dangerous to our workplaces. While it is not wrong to take pride in our heritage or nationality, being culturally sensitive means not pushing your experience or opinions on others. Ethnorelativism, on the other hand, sees all cultures as equal, or relative. It is not blind to the differences, but rather embraces each culture as unique and important in its own right. As you head into the workplace, remember to value each individual’s background and complexity. This basic understanding helps to foster an environment of equality and respect.
In my experience, working with an intercultural team is extremely rewarding. This type of workplace provides a great opportunity to not only embrace different cultural experiences, but to also to find a safe space to be your full self. While, we have a long way to go in breaking down cultural walls, I’m excited to see more workforces embracing this ideology and moving forward to build a more diverse workplace.
The Well is the digital magazine of Jopwell, the career advancement platform helping Black, Latino/Hispanic, and Native American students and professionals unlock opportunities at all career stages. Sign up for resources, opportunities, and events.
Images by Elizabeth Nord Photo