Work: Cultural Conflicts in the Workplace

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By Aruna Papp

Canada’s multicultural policies allow us the freedom to celebrate our ethnic heritage and practice our beliefs as long as they do not harm others or break Canadian laws. However, there are occasions when cultural clashes among neighbours and colleagues do occur. These kinds of misunderstandings can be very stressful and have an impact on one’s mental and physical health. The impact can be greater if it occurs in the workplace where you spend a larger portion of your day.

In the early 1990’s, I was asked to conduct a Cultural Competency Training session for a local business, and I found that the most common complaints from people were related to rudeness. Employees felt that the supervisors were rude or the supervisors felt that they had been disrespected.

Another common complaint from new immigrants, which makes me smile even today, was that people in Canada ask ‘how are you, but they do not stop long enough to hear the answer.’ In many cultures, when we ask someone how they are, it means that we are interested in their well being. As a new immigrant, I learned quickly that “How are you” is nothing more than a greeting and that we are not expected to tell the greeter our feelings. The expected response is just ‘I am fine’.

Culture, in the context we are talking about, refers to shared patterns of behaviour, beliefs, customs, traditions, values and symbols. Understanding culture also helps us to understand others’ behaviours. Our own culture is passed on to us from our parents, grandparents, caregivers and our community. We learn early in life what behaviour is acceptable or unacceptable. These learned behaviours become a part of who we are. Most of the time we don’t think about them; we respond automatically. Each workplace also has its own culture and a newcomer has to learn very quickly how to fit in.

A normal workplace conflict that caused me great stress, was my inability to say “NO”, respectfully and politely, to a colleague who constantly needed help to finish her projects. I was always taught that when someone asks for help you do your best to help them, especially if they fear losing their job, as my colleague did. But helping her constantly also meant that I was not able to meet my deadlines.

In time, I learned that in such situations it is better to say ‘I would love to help; let’s set a time that works for both of us’. This simple phrase allows you to think about how much time you have to spare and when you will be available. Another expression that works well in many situations to avoid conflict is ‘let me think about it and I will get back to you.’ This, again, allows me to take time to think, develop a plan and come up with solutions which will work for both of us without offending anyone.

Workplace culture is difficult to navigate, but “negotiating” is often the key to avoiding conflict, and to building relationships.

Aruna Papp, MA, ADR, MEd. 
Counsellor/Therapist in Private Practice
As an immigrant Aruna took advantage of all the opportunities Canada offers. She attended ESL classes, earned two Masters Degrees and founded 3 immigrant-helping agencies dealing with domestic violence. Now in private practice, she consults for governmental and non-profit agencies, conducts workshops and is a frequent keynote speaker.

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