How to deal with cultural differences within the team environment (Be careful with who you call a girl!)

Cultural competency is the ability to interact with people from different cultures, as well as social and economic backgrounds.

Even though the skill can be developed, it can’t be simply learned from books. In order to gain this skill you must develop and examine your own thoughts and feelings toward other people from your surrounding. The next step is to work on developing your own cross-cultural skills needed to excel in your career and within your organization.

Something that I learned through my career is that the success of the relationships at the workplace are more based on what we think and on how we feel about others, than on the actual time we spend with those people. For example if you get into a relationship with negative feelings about somebody, it will be very difficult to overcome those feelings and to build and maintain a good relationship in the future and vice versa.

Don’t be afraid to be honest with yourself, and don’t feel badly for any biases or prejudices you may harbor. We’re humans. Prejudices and biases are instilled in us based on our background and experiences. It is important to acknowledge them, so they can be overcome.

We all have our own cultures. Your cultural baggage that you carry around can unfortunately make you to feel uncomfortable, frustrated, and even fearful when exposed to a culture that’s foreign to you. 

Diversity in Culture and People as a Concept

In order to become culturally competent, the most important step is that you become aware of your own cultural baggage. The next step is to unpack the “items” that are holding you back from the skills you need to succeed in a diverse workplace.

Different people from different cultures use different communication styles. There are endless cultural variations that will determine people’s beliefs, values, work ethic, and even their work schedule. It’s impossible for you to learn every culture in the world and gain the skills and knowledge to understand each and every culture. Nobody expects you to do that.

But you can show more understanding towards the others at least. Avoid jumping to conclusions and being judgmental towards the others just because they are different from you.

For example being late in my culture is lack of respect, but in some other cultures it is totally acceptable. Therefore the rules exist at almost every workplace, and they should be always respected by everyone regardless of the cultural diversities. The rules of the workplace should be communicated to all employees at the beginning, in order to avoid misunderstanding.

Personally, I also got myself into unpleasant situations regarding the cultural differences a few times. The one that was most intense and unpleasant was the conflict I had with a one of our new room attendants in the hotel where I worked as housekeeping supervisor many years ago.

The woman was from Indonesia and she had a very unusual and difficult name. I just couldn’t remember it, even though she was with us for almost a week. In the housekeeping department we always put new room attendants to work together with some more experienced colleagues for the first week, or more. They work with an experienced colleague until they learn what they are supposed to be doing or until we conclude that they were ready to work alone. She worked together with one of our best room attendants. They had different types of rooms on their list so that the trainee could gain the best learning experience.

One of the rooms from the list was a suite. This suite had a small kitchen with the microwave oven. I checked the room, everything was fine, until I opened the door of the microwave oven. It was all covered with the thick red sauce inside. It was obvious that they haven’t even opened that door.

I approached the room attendant who was supposed to train the new room attendant and I kindly asked him to go back together with the new ”girl”, and to take care of that dirty microwave oven. He seemed very surprised. He said that he already asked her to check that oven, since he was cleaning the bathroom at the time. In order to train new people to do all the tasks well, they were dividing their tasks from room to room. So they were cleaning the room and bathroom intermittently from room to room.

I explained to him that it was his task to check after the ”girl” each time, and to point to her on what she did right and what was wrong, so that she can work alone as soon is possible. He apologized and he said that he is going to do it like this from now on.

And then I did the same mistake for the third time, I told him: ”Thank you darling, please take the new ”girl” with you and finish up that room, because it is almost check in time.” I addressed him ”darling” because we ware very good friends and we knew each other for a long time. I addressed her as ”girl”, because she was very young plus I just couldn’t remember her name, it was so complicated.

People profile heads. Vector background pattern.

Something that I didn’t know regarding the Indonesian culture is that it’s a big insult to address a woman who is already married and have children as a ”girl”.

In European, also in USA culture it is a normal and everyday thing to call each other ”girl”, ”baby girl’‘, ”honey”, ”sweet heart” or ”darling”. It is actually a sweet gesture towards your female friends and colleagues that you like, no matter of their age. Even my 80 years old grandmother call her friends and former colleagues girls and they also call her girl. It is a totally normal thing in Europe and USA. If you call your female friend ”girl” it represents that you like this person. It means that you are braking the distance barrier between you and this person. It is almost like a compliment to the woman here, it made the woman feel young and girly regardless of her age. But not in Indonesia.

The Indonesian lady never actually confronted me, and she never said personally to me that she received this as an insult. But she did left her workplace as soon as she saw my back because she was very devastated by my impolite behavior. Even though I didn’t talked directly to her, I never addressed her directly as a ”girl”. I just talked to the person who trained her, because I didn’t see her around at the moment. She immediately went to the general manager to complain about me and my inappropriate behavior at workplace.

A few minutes later I was called by my manager and warned that I should be more respectful towards my coworkers. I felt so sorry that I insulted this lady unintentionally. I really didn’t had a clue that calling somebody ”girl” can be insulting. I tried to apologize to her many times, but unfortunately the word ”girl” was too offensive for her to forgive me. I asked my manager on how I am supposed to call her or any other person if I can’t remember the name. She said you should address her as a colleague. She was absolutely right. Even though calling someone ”girl” it’s normal thing to me according to my culture, it is kind of unprofessional at the workplace. Especially because I just met the lady. She was very young though, almost 10 years younger than me. But this was not an excuse, and it doesn’t give me the right to call her girl. I was the one to be blamed for this misunderstanding. I said the wrong word not once but several times. She also had the choice to confront me, and to explain me that this is offensive according to her culture. She simply chose an other option, anyhow I learned my lesson.

So, instead of : ”Darling, please take the new ”girl’‘ with you and finish up that room.” The right thing to say since I couldn’t remember her name was:
”Mr. … please take the new colleague with you and finish up that room.” I admitted my mistake. I apologized for being unprofessional.

Unfortunately Indonesian colleague became my implacable enemy, and as much I was trying to approach her and apologize, she refused to speak to me ever again. She was also backbiting me and calling me racist wherever she could, but I didn’t complain about her. I believe that complaining about complaining is also complaining. Even though I had great relationship with all my coworkers this was something that really started to bother me. It made me feel very sad, especially the fact that she was calling me racist and this is not who I am at all. It was so painful experience for me. Therefore I send a letter to the HR department with a request to transfer me to some of the other hotels to work. Since I couldn’t manage to communicate with the Indonesian lady as much as I tried. I saw this as my failure in communication with the person I was forced to work and communicate on daily basis. As I said she was implacable, I couldn’t do anything about it.

At the end of the story after a few weeks, she just quit one day. Thank God I was not the reason. The day she quit she had a huge fight with another colleague supervisor. She actually refused to go back in the room to correct some things that he pointed out. She also accused him for being racist, that was totally groundless. She said that he made her life difficult at work and that he hated her because she was wearing hijab. The supervisor was a white Portuguese man happily married with a beautiful African lady. So, it was totally ridiculous to call that man racist.

I have to admit that I felt some kind of relief, when I found out that Indonesian colleague finally left. But I did learn my lesson from that unpleasant story. Be careful with who you call a ”girl’‘ from now on.

I also started to read a lot about other cultures, their beliefs, biases, values and habits. Anyhow, as much as we learn from internet and from the books regarding this topic it’s not gonna make us culturally competent. First we must unpack our own cultural baggage and to get rid of all the “items” that are holding us back from happy and respectful coexistence with other cultures.

Quala, Gozo, Malta

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