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Avoiding Culture Diversity Meltdowns

I experienced an epic diversity meltdown. Let me give you some context before I tell you how things blew up. I worked in Greece with a non-profit organization that was helping to feed, house, and find employment for the crush of refugees that poured into Europe from Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Morocco, Nigeria, Sudan and many more countries. Most were young men looking for a new life that Europe promised to offer. So, we were working with a very diverse population, and our team was diverse too. It had volunteers from literally all over the globe: South America, Middle East, Europe, North America, Australia, Asia. Diversity was a beautiful thing, a joy to be around. However, it also posed many challenges to meshing understanding. Culture by definition provides context for meaning, norms, and values. Diversity can present challenges when we can’t see what another’s cultural filter is doing. Just like when the language of another culture is foreign and must be translated, the norms and values too need to be translated as well into a common understanding. Daniel Seigel (leading psychologist and neuroscientist) calls this mutual mindsight. When we can see things mutually from each other’s perspective.

The Epic Meltdown

This lack of mutual mindsight led to the epic meltdown. One day, a leader in our organization was working with some volunteers from the refugee population. The refugees would come alongside us in our efforts to help others too. This leader, from Asia, had values in his culture, that you should be prompt and should honor the stated desires of a person who held power. This is called ‘high distance to power’ in anthropology and was, and still is, a norm in his culture. He asked a group of refugee volunteers to be at the place of work at 5am, but they didn’t show up that morning. So, when he saw them that night standing in line with all of their compatriots waiting for a meal, he scolded them. His behavior was entirely appropriate in his country. In English (not a native language for any of them), he said that they had missed the appointment and that he was disappointed that they did not follow through on his instructions. The volunteers were from a culture where this leader’s actions were a huge loss of face, because the rebuke was done publicly. From a high shame-based culture, causing shame to someone in this manner is worse than doing them bodily harm. So in their culture to regain face they had to threaten the leader. They called the leader later that night anonymously and had some very threatening words of challenge (I am putting this mildly). Although no harm actually came to the leader, there were many hard feelings for weeks. Neither the leader nor the volunteers were bad people. They all had good intentions to help one another. Yet because of a failure of understanding of culture they missed each other completely.

Diversity Expands our World

While we might not experience these levels of diversity and misunderstanding in our workplace, I assure you it will happen often even between similar cultures. And as the levels of workplace diversity continue to increase, we have even greater chances for issues of cultural misunderstanding to happen. The more diversity, the greater the number of cultural norms and values and meanings we need to learn from one another. This learning really opens up our understanding of the world we share and gives each of us perspective on life. It did for me.

How to Prevent the Diversity Meltdown

The solution is not to diminish diversity. Diversity is a great thing. Nor is the solution that we all go and study cultural anthropology like I did. Because even I didn’t know all of these norms in the story above until it happened. So how can we prevent this and repair things when we make mistakes? (And we need to give each other grace, because this is not easy and it is messy!)

COCA to the Rescue

My wife does think that chocolate is the cure for just about all things. But this COCA is an acronym given to us by Daniel Siegle, author of “The Neurobiology of We.” He suggests that mutual integration of our mental and cultural realities happens when we adopt COCA mindsets. COCA stands for Curious, Open, Compassionate and Accepting. This allows us to become aware of the differing sets of meanings, norms and values held by the other. COCA creates a safe place that invites the other to share with you, an inclusive space. When we all operate in a COCA way we begin to share our diversity in life-giving ways. But strap on your seat belts of humility because this is not easy and we will make mistakes. When mistakes happen be “open” to making repairs in relationships. Also be “compassionate.” Compassion means we ‘suffer together’ through our mistakes to get to the outcome of mutual mindsight.

Where Are You From?

Let me give you another example of how cultural norms could conflict. On many university campuses a new norm has been created where asking “Where are you from?” is considered a culturally offensive action, as some have been hurt by the implication that they are not “really” included in the local population. This is a laudable sensitivity, yet even this norm could violate someone else’s norm. I spent years in the Mediterranean where “Apo pou esia” (“Where are you from?” in Greek) was the culturally normative first question you were expected to ask. The stranger who was asked would dive in with great delight about what country, village, and personal ancestry he or she came from. The listener would listen with open curiosity and eagerness to learn about the stranger they had just met. The Greek would talk loudly and over the top of the other with all of his excitement. Contrast that with the indigenous people, the Dakelh of British Columbia, that I had the privilege to visit. The Dakelh held a cultural expectation that when you first met, you would sit in silence for about a minute or so. Then your host would begin the conversation. This showed respect to the person you were coming to visit, that you didn’t have an agenda. Wow, how cool is that? Yet how many of us would misunderstand their silence?

The Challenge

If a Dakelh, a US college student, and a Greek enter a bar how do they get to know one another’s norms? You see how it can be tricky? If all three were Curious, Open, Compassionate, and Accepting the three would begin to create space for one another to learn the norms, meanings and values of their respective origin cultures. And in today’s world getting to know one another can be even more complex. What if the Dahelh marries a Greek and they send their child to college in the US? You get what I mean and why we need COCA?

We Can Get There

Remember the goal is for all people to feel known, understood and appreciated. We cannot simply make a list of new norms and expect all to conform. Rather we need to adopt an attitude that will open the door to mutual mindsight. We need to open the door to making mistakes in a spirit of openness and compassion. We need to make repairs and journey on together. And that comes through a messy yet delightful process called COCA. People thrive when they feel they engage in life-giving relationships. The places we work are great opportunities for us to build this. It takes leaders trained to begin to spot culturally diverse norms, meanings and values. It takes COCA trained leaders to create that space of inclusion that we all desire. Then we can work together learning and growing together.


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