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Whenever we interpret

behavior, whenever we decide

what someone else’s actions

mean, we are obliged to do so

from the perspective of

our own experience.

becoming increasingly multi-cultural—1 in 5 citizens in the county my social worker is from were born outside the U.S.— how do you serve people you know very little about and may not understand very well? First of all, keep everything in perspective: while it’s true you won’t understand some things about people from a different culture, you will actually understand some others. We may all be cultural beings in some ways, products of our unique national culture, but we are also human beings in many others. Some things about that Salvadorian father may be forever unfathomable to you, but some other things will be as true for him as for the American father who is your next appointment. You’re not doomed to misinterpret everything that father says and does; just some things. Second: with clients from a different culture, don’t assume you understand what’s going on in front of you. Assume, in fact, that you don’t, and then proceed to check your understanding with the client. I told my social worker that the next time she met with Mr. and Mrs. Miranda ,she should bring up the subject of involving the father in cases like this, state her perceptions (that Mr. Miranda seemed disengaged), ask if her perception was valid, and have a discussion about what the clients felt Mr. Miranda’s role should be in solving the problem. Which brings us to the third thing public servants can do in such cases: let the members of the public educate you about their culture. Since it’s not realistic for you to become expert

in 35 cultures, let the experts in those cultures help you. Ask the Mirandas what would happen/if it might work to try solution X or approach Y in their son’s case. By all means bring your professional expertise to bear on the situation, even if that expertise may be somewhat ethnocentric, and let the Mirandas pick the parts that will work in their culture and reject the others. Just as you should not assume all your expertise is relevant, don’t assume all of it is irrelevant. Fourth: Use the cultural resources around you. Mr. and Mrs. Miranda can certainly educate you about their culture, but so can the coworkers and colleagues from their part of the world who happen to be in your workforce, if not in your office or even in your division. One out of 8 Americans is foreign-born, and 1 out of 6 people in the U.S. workforce. There may not be another Salvadorian or Chechnyian in your immediate workplace, but there may be people from the same region of the world or from a similar culture. And if not, then somebody you know—from church, from your child’s school, from day care—has to know somebody else who knows somebody from El Salvador. You don’t have to figure all this out on your own. Fifth: Give the Mirandas some credit. They know they’re foreigners, that it is they who have moved to your country, and that the burden is therefore on them to learn about and try to adjust to your culture (just as you would feel the burden if you immigrated to their country). And they’re probably trying very hard. At some level, the Mirandas know it’s not realistic to expect a middle-class, middle-aged Caucasian American social worker to figure out where two rural Salvadorians are coming from. They may realize, in short, that you probably are misinterpreting some of their behavior and that you may on occasion be giving them some pretty ethnocentric counseling, and they will make the necessary adjustments. PDJ

Craig Storti, a consultant and trainer in the field of intercultural communications, is the author of seven books. His latest, Speaking of India, describes the common cultural flashpoints when Indians work together with North Americans and western Europeans. He can be contacted at: P ro f i l e s i n D i v e r s i t y J o u r n a l

March/April 2010


Diversity Journal - Mar/Apr 2010  
Diversity Journal - Mar/Apr 2010  

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