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When It's Multicultural and You Haven't a Clue

Susan Dunn -- Using emotional intelligence to deal with diversity and multiculturalism can help you find the commonality of purpose with a person of another culture.

It happened again. I was asked to do a presentation for a business and the topic was to be "[Strange Word I've Never Heard Of], Multiculturalism & Emotional Intelligence in the Work Place."

Now I've been around a while -- well, let's say I'm a weathered veteran of the world-at-large -- and I know my field, Emotional Intelligence and I know multiculturalism. I'm sure I "know" what this means, though I don't have a clue. I immediately agreed to do it, and I didn't ask. As the time approached, I resisted looking up the word [Strange Word I'd Never heard Of]. I realized I had right in front of me the perfect living example of multiculturalism, and I like to illustrate Emotional Intelligence situations in real time, as we all learn more.

This is a culture clash that will require finesse. Here we are, two people speaking the same language, both at least somewhat versed in Emotional Intelligence, or he wouldn't be asking me, and experts in our individual fields (he's the head of HR for a corporation), but he has given me a title that makes no sense to me, assuming that it will.

It might as well be another language. Neither of us is ignorant, neither of us is insensitive, we are both native speakers of English, and here we are: he is unintelligible to me and has no idea that he is.

My task is going to require a lot of emotional intelligence. I must figure out how to let him know I don't know what this means without either (1) losing my credibility, or (2) appearing to insult his use of the language or his intelligence, or his myopic view of things, or (3) causing either one of us to "lose face" in front of the group.

Of course dealing with the shame of "losing face" would also be an EQ lesson; should we ever be ashamed when we don't know something? Who's culture is that? It's not the culture in coaching, worldwide, and that's one of the reasons I like coaching. Also Emotional Intelligence is global; we innately realize it's something we all have in common, and gives us a common language.

By the way, I had a Chinese-American client tell me the other day that I didn't know the concept of "lose face". Actually I was raised with it, as one of the most punishable offenses. It's what led me so easily into public relations, where I worked for many years saving people's and company's "faces" for a living.

So we have here precisely the dilemma every person from another culture faces every day, and more and more it goes on all day long in offices around the world.

So how do we deal with Diversity & Multicultural with Emotional Intelligence?

1. Learn what your own culture is, and how it differs, and to do this you must be open to studying and learning another culture. That's the only way you'll understand that people ARE different, and HOW different.

EXAMPLE: It is proper for a person being interviewed in the US, to make eye contact. It is not proper for an Aborigine, in Australia, having an interview to make eye contact.

ACTION POINT: Next time you encounter someone from another culture, instead of assuming you won't understand them and you have nothing in common, or they don't know how to "do things," seek the "forest" of commonality among the "trees" of diversity. There's not a culture on earth that doesn't understand warmth in the eyes.

2. Get to know your own prejudices, an act of self-awareness, which is Emotional Intelligence. Know where they came from.

EXAMPLE: Someone growing up in the US south in the 50's was punished harshly for interacting with a member of another race, at home, at school and at large. Integration was a very difficult issue in the US and people who are in their 50's and 60's remember it, at a visceral level.

ACTION POINT: Next time you feel uncomfortable dealing with someone from another culture, explore your feelings. Acknowledge them and then trace back to why. It's a beginning. Acknowledge the discomfort and deal with it, don't act it out.

3. If someone tells you they can deal with multicultural issues without a cluster of negative emotions (guilt, anger, frustration, anxiety, irritation), they're lying to you.

EXAMPLE: In a law firm I worked in, early on, I was suddenly expected to do all the translating of Spanish documents without more pay. This added 1/3rd again to my workload, and was stressful. I'm not a native speaker, and legalese is hard enough in your own language. When in the office next to me sat Maria Garcia (not her real name), reading books at her desk because she had spare time, and speaking what I knew to be far better Spanish than mine to her mother on the phone. Rather than go to the office manager, I went to Maria. "Why won't you translate this stuff?" I asked her. "I help you with your work. You're far better at this than I am. I don't get it." She replied, with tears in her eyes, that she'd been beaten for speaking Spanish in first grade (common in Texas) and she just couldn't do it, and her hands were shaking as she spoke.

ACTION POINT: When you're from the MidWest, and a Texan comes toward you in way that seems threatening, braying at a decibel level that's rude to you, and prepares to envelop you in what is to you an offensive bear hug, manage your emotions. Take the time to think, and respond, rather than react. Just as the Arab will have to, in whose presence you cross your legs and show the sole of your shoe, one of the most insulting things you can do to a Middle Easterner. Who knew? Make it your point this week to starting "knowing." Check out my website for some multicultural resources and learn something new. Improve your intuition -- your ability to pay attention to your gut feelings, and your ability to read nonverbal cues -- both of which are Emotional Intelligence competencies and both of which are vital to Multicultural.

Back to the forest and the trees. In most interchanges, you and the person of another culture are after the same thing. Find it.

It may be you're working on a project together, or you're trying to buy something and they're trying to sell it, or someone would like to make friends with you and you'd like to find the friendship. Look for the commonality of purpose.

Susan Dunn, The EQ Coach, GLOBAL EQ. Emotional intelligence coaching to enhance all areas of your life -- career, relationships, midlife transition, resilience, self-esteem, parenting. EQ Alive! -- excellent, accelerated, affordable EQ coach certification. Susan is the author of numerous ebooks, is widely published on the Internet, and a regular speaker for cruise lines. For more details, visit

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