While I worked a little on Somali this week, it hasn’t been the main focus. (Waan ka xumahay!) I’ve been preparing three talks taking place over the course of two weeks, all around cultural awareness. As a reader of this blog, you are probably fascinated with other cultures as I am. I will try to challenge you as I do my live audiences. If you want to know about other cultures, you must work: sitting down, asking questions, and learning. Put your ego aside.
Become a student
First, you have to prepare to learn. At work I spoke to a group of 30-40 culturally aware and sophisticated colleagues. I introduced a half-day session where multiple speakers addressed how to improve your cultural awareness. I told a story from my friend’s dad, who worked in real estate in Denver, a heavily Hispanic city. He enjoyed a lot of opportunities there because he learned Spanish to fluency in college. Real estate agents have to drop in on houses from time to time, and sometimes the residents don’t speak English. They might be suspicious, and not let the agent in. But he would simply explain what he was doing, and they would let him in. One time, some folks from his church wanted to offer English classes to help out the Hispanic immigrant population. He mocked their supposed desire to “do good.” “Guess what,” he said. “Those people don’t want to learn English. They prefer to speak Spanish. If you really want to do something for them, sit your butt in a chair and learn Spanish.” To learn about other cultures, you must work as a student. Put your ego to the side and learn. When you’re in that mindset, you will see teachers all around you, people from other cultures who have a lot to teach—as soon as you’re ready to listen.
Second, you have to embrace the awkwardness. In this talk, I address a group of high school students embarking on their first cultural deep-dive. They are participating in City Stay, which finds Somali and Hmong host families in the Twin Cities for local high school students. Students live with families of other cultures and thus learn about culture from the inside out. The students are nervous about committing some indiscretion; little do they know this is the best place to start learning from. Feeling tension because you don’t know how to act serves two purposes. First, it replicates the everyday feeling of immigrants in this country, teaching sympathy. Imagine the feeling of an immigrant who must second-guess their instincts on disciplining their children or interacting with cashiers every time they leave the house. The students have to think about how they sit, how they greet others, and how they eat—which they normally take for granted. Second, the tension motivates you to learn, manifesting your ignorance palpably. Awkwardness manifests itself physically with tightness in the chest or stomach, even shortening your breath. Your minds spins, “What did I do? What should I have done?” These are the key questions for learning about other cultures. When you feel awkward, your very body motivates you to observe and learn. The students will develop an eagle eye for how others act in various situations, and work to mimic them.
Listen to your colleagues
Third, non-native English speakers always have something to offer us here in the US. I am preparing a presentation with Luby Ismail of Connecting Cultures, at the Forum on Workplace Inclusion, a national Human Resources conference attended by representatives of many Fortune 500 companies. While much of diversity and inclusion focuses on race, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc, few in the industry are looking at how non-native English speakers are treated as an inconvenience, rather than as a valuable resource for competing in a global economy. We need to look at these people with new eyes—and ears. Some employers see people who speak accented English as lacking. They lack communication skills. Their emails are not always clear. Colleagues might feel uncomfortable around them, and customers might be turned off. As a result, people often see them as a liability that must be accommodated because of their perceived lack of ability. In fact, non-native English speakers by their very nature bring skills and knowledge that a successful global company must possess to succeed. Non-native English speakers have proven that they can do the hard work of perfecting a language to a professional level. They’ve had to intuit a new system of living that may or may not have been explained to them. They bring intimate knowledge of another place, culture, and language. For native English speakers, they can help as teachers and guides to other places in the world. Their background will help any team think outside the box. If we native English speakers set aside our egos to learn as much as we can from our non-native English speaking colleagues, we will improve ourselves. The common thread among all three of these talks is that we all have a lot to learn. Fortunately, we’re surrounded by teachers. We only stand in the way of ourselves with our egos and fears. Once we set aside our ego and embrace our fear, we can learn from the people all around us who embody countless languages and cultures. We will gain skills, knowledge, and sympathy for others, becoming deeper, better people.