WorkWise: 'No magic bullet' to bridge cultural differences

culp@workwise.netFebruary 3, 2013 

As the Internet shrinks the world, you’re likely to find yourself working with at least one person whose cultural background differs greatly from yours. This person may sit in a cubicle next to you, in an office down the hall or at the end of a telephone, here or abroad. How can you enjoy cultural differences when you may know very little about them?

Lynne Velling has worked for almost 12 years among people from far-flung parts of the globe as an ESL teacher and, before that, in the nation’s largest private ESL company. As principal at Velling & Associates Communication Training in Pasadena, she encourages people in multicultural contexts to “keep an open mind, but don’t be naive. Ask open-ended questions that reflect interest in knowing more and sharing information.”

However, Velling cautions that as with others in your workplace, you may find people appreciative of your interest but cross personal boundaries.


Blaise Mercadante, chief development and marketing officer at Miami Jewish Health Systems in Miami, Fla., describes how easy his organization makes striking up a conversation with a person whose background is completely different. About two-thirds of his system’s staff and patients come from abroad.

“We have a multicultural conference and bazaar each year,” he reports, “where employees stand up and talk about (cultural differences). A lot of the issues different cultures have in working together (emanate) from lack of understanding.”

For example, a patient from New York may speak loudly, prompting a nurse from Haiti to suspect the patient dislikes her.

Bridging cultures at Miami Jewish Health isn’t exclusive to annual events. “We work with each team and group on an ongoing basis,” Mercadante mentions. “We hold cultural presentations developed by employees themselves with an employee from that culture.”

Those presentations are designed to open up topics of conversation and make it easier for people to express interest rather than appear to be challenging a culture.


If you work in a small company or business that doesn’t open cultural doors for employees, you need not be stuck. Velling and Mercadante agree that you need to respect the other person. Velling adds the importance of “being aware of your own prejudices,” which you may often express when you make assumptions and generalize.

Of Indian descent, Avani Patel, CEO of TrendSeeder Corp. in New York, N.Y., showcases emerging designers from around the world on her site. Ariela Piccioetto, her Italian director of strategy and marketing, speaks five different languages, and the two enjoy learning from each other.

“People like to talk about themselves,” Patel remarks. “Focus on what they’re doing as opposed to who they are.”

Patel and Mercadante consider food a very safe subject. Patel and Piccioetto discuss it enthusiastically. “We love food,” the entrepreneur comments. “It’s always interesting to see how Italian food is different in the States. There is detail and who doesn’t really like food? It’s not like politics. All you can fight over is whether you like Italian food or what your favorite food is.”

Velling, along those lines, advises avoiding the sensitive (not taboo) topic of democracy when speaking with a Chinese citizen.

Although both Patel and Piccioetto enjoy discussing their backgrounds with each other, Patel recommends holding back about family because of potentially difficult situations, and steering clear of religion. Mercadente observes that “there’s no magic bullet” in the entire process.

“Know that words and concepts have multiple interpretations,” Velling advises, “and ask for clarification. Enjoy learning and expanding perspectives on life experience.”

Dr. Mildred L. Culp welcomes your questions at © 2013 Passage Media.

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