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Tool #1: Six Fundamental Patterns of Cultural Differences

These descriptions point out recurring causes of cross-cultural communication difficulties. Next time you find yourself in a confusing situation, and you suspect that cross-cultural differences are part of the problem, review this list. Ask yourself how culture may be shaping your reactions, and try to see the world from others' points of view. Remember that the ways people communicate vary widely between and sometimes within cultures.

Different communication styles

  • Language usage is one aspect of communication style. Across cultures words and phrases are often used in different ways. For example, even in countries that share the English language, the meaning of "yes" varies from "maybe, I'll consider it" to "definitely so," with many shades in between.
  • The degree of importance given to non-verbal communication is a major aspect of communication style. It includes facial expressions and gestures, seating arrangement, personal distance, and sense of time.
  • The appropriate degree of assertiveness in communicating can add to cultural misunderstandings. For example, some white Americans consider raised voices a sign of a fight, while some Black, Jewish, and Italian Americans feel that an increase in volume is a sign of an exciting conversation among friends. So, some people may react with alarm to a loud discussion, when others may not.

Different attitudes toward conflict

  • Some cultures view conflict as a positive thing, while others view it as something to be avoided. In the U.S., conflict is not usually desirable, but people often are encouraged to deal directly with conflicts that arise.
  • Face-to-face meetings customarily are recommended as the way to work through problems that exist in the U.S. But in many Eastern countries, open conflict is seen as embarrassing or demeaning. As a rule, differences are best worked out quietly . A written exchange might be the favored means to address conflict.

Different approaches to completing tasks

  • Various cultures move toward completing tasks in different ways. Factors involved are different access to resources, different judgments of rewards associated with task completion, different notions of time, and varied ideas about how relationship-building and task-oriented work should go together.
  • When working together effectively on a task, cultures differ regarding importance placed on establishing relationships early in a collaboration. For example, Asian and Hispanic cultures tend to attach more emphasis on task completion toward the end as compared with European-Americans. European-Americans tend to focus immediately on the task at hand, and let relationships develop as they work on the task. This doesn't mean that people from various cultural backgrounds are more or less committed to accomplishing the task, or value relationships more or less, it just means they may pursue them differently.

Different decision-making styles

  • In the U.S., decisions are frequently delegated, an official assigns responsibility for a matter to a subordinate.
  • In many Southern European and Latin American countries, a strong value is placed on the individual having decision-making responsibilities.
  • Majority rule is a common approach in the U.S., but consensus is the preferred mode in Japan.

Different attitudes about open emotion and personal matters

  • In some cultures it is not appropriate to be frank about emotions, about the reasons behind a conflict or a misunderstanding, or about personal information.
  • When dealing with conflict, be aware that others may feel differently than you about what they are comfortable revealing. Questions that seem natural to you (e.g., What was the conflict about? What was your role in the conflict? What was the sequence of events?) may seem intrusive to others.
  • Variation in attitudes toward disclosure should be considered before concluding that you understand the views, experience, and goals of people you're working with .

Different approaches to knowing

  • There can be big differences among cultural groups about how people come to know things (epistemologies).
  • European cultures tend to believe that information acquired through cognitive means (counting, measuring) is more valid than other ways of gathering information.
  • African cultures prefer symbolic imagery and rhythm as a mode of learning.
  • Asian cultures tend to emphasize the validity of knowledge gained through striving for enlightenment or perfection.
  • Some may want to do library research to understand a shared problem and identify solutions, while others may prefer to visit places and people who have experienced challenges like the one being faced to get a feeling for what has worked elsewhere.
  • Research shows that Western society is paying more attention to other ways of knowing, because this can reveal different approaches to analyze and resolve problems.

Adapted from the AMPU Guide

Tool #2: An Exercise: Exploring Myths and Stereotypes

Instructions: This exercise helps people to practice listening and understanding, while simultaneously dealing with the content of some typical stereotypes. It is a useful group-building experience, particularly for people who want to share their ideas about the language of oppression. It requires a group leader/facilitator to provide the directions and help debrief the personal reactions of each pair.

Write the following myths on a flip chart or hand them out to everyone. (You can also have the group generate its own list of myths.)

  • Immigrants take jobs that belong to real Americans.
  • Blacks ruin every neighborhood they move into.
  • Jews are powerful and control the media.
  • Asians are model students and have educational advantages.
  • All Latino men are macho and hot-tempered.
  • Women belong in the kitchen.

Have people select a partner from a different ethnic, color or cultural background, or alternatively, the group leader can put people together in pairs.

Everyone should select one of the myths and discuss it with their partner.

  • Person A states their position, opinion, or conflict about the myth, while B listens.
  • Person B then restates or summarizes A's position while A listens.
  • Person A corrects and clarifies what B said, until A's original position is accurately portrayed.
  • Then A and B reverse roles.

The facilitator then reconvenes the full group to discuss:

  • How does it make us feel to see and hear these statements?
  • What is the impact of these kinds of myths and stereotypes?
  • What have you done or what could you do to eliminate these stereotypes?
  • How does it feel to listen and be listened to?

Adapted from materials in "Making the Grade: Community Workbook."

Tool #3: Collaboration Checklist

Use this checklist to assess to what degree you or your group is satisfied with the action or changes to be considered/discussed with partner(s).

Rate each factor from 1 to 5. Closer to 1 means "less satisfied" and closer to 5 means "more satisfied."

1. The scope of the project is clear:

  • The benefit to clients is clear.
  • Overall goals and objectives are defined.

2. Benefits to us are clear:

  • Organizational benefits are sought.
  • Individual needs/interests are met.

3. Responsibility/accountability is clear:

  • Who is going to do what and by when?
  • A mechanism for monitoring and correcting/adjusting plans is in place.

4. We can depend on each other:

  • The appropriate people are involved.
  • There is enough trust and respect for this project to work.

From: Support Center for Nonprofit Management/National Minority AIDS Council

Tool #4: Sample Ground Rules for Multicultural Collaborations

Many groups that collaborate find it useful to create ground rules for group behavior and collaboration operation. Agreeing to abide by these ground rules can help members to develop group norms and design an ideal environment where everyone feels comfortable .

You can create one set of rules that apply to all meetings, or create special rules for different occasions. Make sure that all participants have input into creating or approving the Ground Rules, and give each person a copy, or post them on a poster or on newsprint in a visible location. These rules relate specifically to multicultural issues. Use them with your group to create a climate that will work for you. These are just examples. Your collaborative group can make up its own.

The group agrees to...

  • Share information about our groups and learn from others about theirs.
  • Be respectful of the way that others want us to treat them. We will not demean , devalue, or in any way put people down (no making jokes at the expense of others ).
  • Give new voices a chance, and not dominate the discussion.
  • Combat actively and correct misinformation about the myths and stereotypes about our own groups and other groups.
  • Keep our discussions here confidential, and respect people's privacy.
  • Treat our own and other people's ideas and emotions with respect.
  • Listen and not interrupt while one person speaks at a time.
  • Not blame, accuse, or make generalizations.
  • Disagree as long as nobody's feelings are hurt.
  • Treat people as individuals, not as representatives of an entire group.
  • Respect everyone's uniqueness and our differences.

Adapted from "From the Ground up! A Workbook on Coalition Building and Community Development."

Tool #5: How to Bridge Language Barriers in a Group

Arrange for bilingual translators or volunteers. Accommodating language differences may be time consuming but it is absolutely essential in a multicultural collaboration .
Determine whether meetings will be bilingual, or how to use translation. If at least half of the group speaks another language, have total translation of each statement. You may want to break up into small groups, each conducted in a different language, to ensure understanding and participation. The "report-back" and summary can be translated. If only a few people do not speak English, someone who is bilingual can sit near them and translate or answer their questions as the meeting progresses.
Encourage participants to raise questions or make statements in their primary language. You can provide translation for the rest of the group.
If a large contingent speaks another language they may want to hold their own separate meetings. In this case, make sure that the same agenda and issues are used in the parallel meetings. Request that answers to specific questions or a list of ideas will be brought back from both groups to connect the separate discussions and move the collaboration ahead.
Make sure that all written materials are produced, read, and used in all languages that the group speaks.
Consciously build a multicultural vocabulary, using terms and phrases that describe cultural relations as they should be. Be prepared for words to change action, and actions to change the collaborative in real ways.

Adapted from: "From the Ground Up! A Workbook on Coalition Building and Community Development."