I read an email from a friend last night that prompted me to think about
cultural differences. When we think about cultural differences, we usually
think in terms of foreign countries and their cultures. Some of these cultural
differences we understand, and some of them we don't.
We know that if we go to Italy, for example, we would not be surprised to
see two men kissing each other on the cheek as the standard form of greeting. Yet many would raise an eyebrow if two non-ethnic Americans or Canadians would do the same in our countries. Though we understand the cultural difference, it does not mean that the majority of us in Canada or the United States would accept it for our way of life.
Canada prides herself on being a multicultural country and extremely
sensitive to the cultural needs of others. Yet sociologists have found a new
type of cultural intolerance that can no longer be defined as the very black and white "you are either accepting of cultural differences or you're not."
The new type of cultural clash can be explained through the example of the
Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Canadians have accepted multi-culturalism with grace. We have incorporated cultural differences within the Canadian mosaic. One major exception to the rule has been when cultural differences step on our toes or get to the very heart of the Canadian identity.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) is at the heart of our
Canadian identity. Our national police force in its red jackets, black pants,
and hats are known throughout the world. Not only is the fact that they are
usually posed mounted on horses uniquely Canadian, but the entire uniform
from head to toe spells Canada as well.
Very few aspects of our identity distinguish us from our American
brothers, but the RCMP does. However this bastion of Canadian uniqueness was challenged by an ethnic group.
For cultural reasons, the Sikhs in Canada felt that they were excluded from the police force. For religious purposes the Sikhs must wear a turban. Thus they could not wear the traditional garb. I cannot begin to explain the emotional uproar that followed. Suffice to say that there was much controversy.
The feeling of the day was that we Canadians accept all cultures into our
society, but now you are treading on something that is near and dear to our
hearts; our very own Canadian identity. Finally after much debating back and forth, the Sikhs were admitted into the police force wearing a turban rather than the traditional hat.
At the beginning of this article, I brought up cultural differences that were
understood within the culture that adhered to them; namely the two ethnic
men kissing each other. This cultural practice would not be accepted across the board in Canadian or American cultures. The second example was a cultural difference that tore at the heart of the Canadian identity. Alterations were made to the RCMP uniform in favour of the Sikhs.
But what about all the differences that we are not even aware of? How do
we incorporate them into the mosaic of Canadian life especially when they
conflict with our own values? For example, some cultures, such as the
Japanese and Native Americans, do not look directly into the eyes of the
people with whom they are speaking. In these cultures it is considered rude to do so. Yet Japanese people have lost American and Canadian jobs because the interviewer mistook the downcast eyes to mean that the applicant was not assertive enough for the position at hand.
In terms of Native peoples of Canada and America not looking into the eyes of the people they are speaking with, it is a form of respect, but for our culture it has often been misunderstood to mean "shifty eyed," or sneaky and not trustworthy.
At work a few weeks ago I had a conversation with a supervisor who was
very frustrated with an employee from another country. The supervisor stated that she had told him time and again what his areas of weakness were and he just stood there never saying a word. The supervisor expected dialogue of some sort, perhaps excuses why his performance was not up to par or an argument if he disagreed with her evaluation. By not responding, she assumed that he either did not care about his job or he was guilty as charged.
I pointed out that his demeanour was more cultural than anything else. For
him to respond to the accusations was to challenge her authority. It would be considered an act of disrespect in his culture. After that conversation, I am pleased to say that supervisor went away with a better cultural understanding and the gentleman in question is still working for our company. The supervisor was able to establish dialogue and performance issues were resolved.
Imagine how many misunderstandings could be easily resolved if we took
the time to understand cultural differences.
You can find Part 11 of this article here: