to address harassment, bullying and discrimination

 with Stephen Hammond

Tip #24 — DIFFERENCES AND DISCOMFORT - languages and culture

We've accepted that we have certain stereotypes and we've decided to try and reduce their impact. That gives us confidence in finding the right employees and customers and treating them fairly. But it doesn't always negate the fact that sometimes we're not sure what to say or do around people who are different from us and with whom we haven't grown up.


We do this partly because it keeps us in our comfort zone. If someone makes us feel uncomfortable, we often fail to give that person a fair chance, justifying this on the sense that it's not "the right fit." In the workplace, discomfort can stem from someone having a different language or culture, or having different physical or mental abilities.



It's not uncommon for English speakers to think that people who don't speak English as a first language are not as smart. A part of us knows it's ridiculous, but how many people do we pass over before we face this inner prejudice?


All of us have strange notions related to language. Have you ever caught yourself raising your voice when speaking to someone who has trouble with English? If you feel forced to say, "Could you repeat that" too many times, do you avoid that person in an attempt to limit episodes of embarrassing communication attempts?


Differences in culture can lead to the same sort of discomfort. We become afraid to make comments or ask certain questions for fear of embarrassing another person or ourselves. Instead of asking questions or taking the risk of offending, we take the easy way out by surrounding ourselves with people much like us. That way, there's no risk and everyone feels comfortable.


This is not a phenomenon restricted to English-speaking White people of European descent. It's second nature to most humans. For many years Statistics Canada has released results tracking the destination patterns of new immigrants to Canada. In the three largest metropolitan areas - Toronto, Montreal & Vancouver - many highly skilled immigrants chose their city on the basis of being close to family and friends. Fewer people chose their destination according to job prospects. I believe this indicates that living in our comfort zone and having support is more important than pursuing career ambitions.



1) Be careful around language - because exceptions can make sense. A workplace has every right to set the language of the workplace. But there are many exceptions that can help a person with English as a second language. Getting confirmation about safety issues from a colleague with the same language can reduce injuries. Don't be strict when exceptions make sense.


2) Be careful around language - because the issue can blow up in your face. These are the kinds of things that get banner front page headlines. If people want to talk in their own language during breaks, let them. It's not easy speaking a second language (for most of us), so try to understand the ease a person gets while taking a break and speaking in their first language.


3) Talk about language - to get people to better understand. If English speaking Canadians take the stance that everyone is being rude when they speak another language, then you likely won't get very far with understanding. Have employees discuss the times when the language of business must be discussed and when it's not necessary. But make sure you keep any discussion civil and respectful. It's amazing the emotions that can come up over language.

This is TIP #24 of 52 WEEKLY TIPS for managers and supervisors. 
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