Talking Cultural Diversity

a discussion board for cultural and diversity issues by Thomas Kochman and Jean Mavrelis

Working Cultural Conflicts

By Thomas Kochman - 09.18.2012

Cultural conflicts are systemic in nature, arising not from malice or bad intentions but from different underlying values, standards, or protocols.

These can be a source of friction, frustration or fun.

Whether it is one or the other depends upon how far away you are from where the conflict occurred or whether you are personally affected.

Mel Brooks’ definition of comedy and tragedy applies here. “Tragedy is when things happen to you. Comedy is when they happen to someone else.”

Jean Mavrelis talks about a conflict between her Jewish dad and Irish mom when members of the “other” group came over for dinner. Her Irish mom, complaining about the Jewish relatives, would say, “They come, they don’t drink, they eat, and they leave.” To which her Jewish dad would retort, “And when your relatives come, they drink, don’t eat, and never leave.”

For Jean –a generation removed—her parent’s argument is now just a story, one that she uses in our diversity training to make a cultural point. For her parents, however, more was at stake. Their difference –because of their emotional investment- was not simply a matter of right and left, but right and wrong, and because of that, more friction and frustration than fun.

Our role as diversity trainers is not only to understand cultural conflicts but to change the way people experience them, within the workplace, for example, where everyone has a stake in what happens and how things, like conflicts, get resolved.

One way to do that is to establish a venue –like a retreat—which allows people to take a step back to look at themselves and others as spectators, rather than participants.

Here they learn what is behind the conflicts that occur and also what values and expectations drive them.

Another goal is to expand self-awareness by dealing with how members of other groups see them, above and beyond how they see themselves.

What members of different groups get from this differs: in large part owing to their respectively different social history and cultural backgrounds.

For mainstream U.S. white men, it’s often to develop an objective sense of themselves as members of a group –which is often how others see them—as an add-on to their subjective sense of themselves as individuals –and to come to grips with what all of that means.

For white women and people of color, because of their historical and cultural experience of being seen as members of a group –a new experience is being seen by members of other groups as individuals—not just as members of a group.

Another important learning is for everyone to leave with a much better sense of what it means to be a member of one or another group: so as to be able to contrast and compare how they see others with how others see themselves.

Only then can people have different kinds of conversations with different others than they could have had before –based upon having a better sense of what might really be going on for them rather than what they used to think was going on for them.

And once that happens ….

3 Responses so far

My boyfriend is both jewish and christian and he tells me how when he is at his mom’s side celebrating Jewish holidays compare and contrast from when he is at his father’s house celebrating Christian holidays. I understand how diversity makes us different but similar at the same time.

My boyfriend is Jewish and Christian and celebrates both. He tells me the differences between his mom’s and dad’s holidays and tells me how they are simlar as well. I understand how people can be diverse.

I think that accepting and embracing diversity is more than just being tolerant of other backgrounds and cultures. The learning experiences gained through study of “other” perspectives is interesting, in that, it makes people more emotionally and personally connected with members of the “groups”. Immersing oneself to appreciate the challenges each member faces helps to see through barriers. While these actions help to teach awareness and comprehension of the differences between people, it ultimately does not effectively break down the barriers that still exist. Especially at work, people are playing roles like actors in a play. The rules in the workplace could possibly just be the rules that people play by, but it does not necessary change what people are thinking in their heads. To fully embrace and understand the culture and backgrounds of others, I think it actually takes full and complete changes in ones own cultures and backgrounds. Unless you lived the experience, you do not really have an understanding of the diversities that exist amongst a group, or an individual. One can have sympathy and apathy, but that does not change the differences that exist.

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