What Did You Say?

Cross-cultural communication entails body language, verbal tone, and at least a minimal understanding of why people act and say what they do.

Diversity in the U.S. workplace continues to grow. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, more than 47 million Americans ages 5 and older -- almost one-fifth of the U.S. population -- speak a language other than English at home. The workforce will continue to change and require employers, trainers, managers, and safety professionals to adapt to reduce confusion and miscommunication or being perceived as offensive while integrating the diverse workforce into a safe, healthy, and productive manner.

For years, the safety profession recognized a growing challenge that comes with a diverse workplace -- providing effective safety training to all employees. Language can certainly be one barrier because the trainer or safety professional is often not multilingual.

The greatest sector of non-English-speaking employees is the growing Hispanic community. As a result, much safety information has been translated into Spanish, and some trainers who are fluent in Spanish provide training in that language. Though we have seen this trend to offer training in the employee’s own language, we are still seeing a tidal wave of workplace injuries occurring within that same population. Why? Additionally, other non-English-speaking groups are growing within the U.S. workforce. How many trainers can provide training in Vietnamese, Mandarin, or French? How many have multiple cultures and languages of people attending the same training class?

Overcoming Barriers
As employers, we are responsible for ensuring the right safety message and the right safety practices and expectations are communicated effectively, regardless of the background of our workers. OSHA reinforces that through its enforcement program. Yes, language can be an overwhelming barrier. We must, however, return to the question of why the number of Hispanic workers being injured in the workplace is growing. It is not simply based on language. This is the group that U.S. companies most likely have been able to "adjust" to and offer training, signage, and other materials in Spanish.

As U.S. companies move into other cross-cultural and cross-lingual environments and other non-English-speaking people come to the United States and streamline into our workplaces, the problem is larger than simply speaking in someone else's language or handing them a translated sheet of paper. The reason is much greater than language; it is cultural.

Cross-cultural communication exceeds spoken words. It entails body language, verbal tone, and at least a minimal understanding of why people act and say what they do. The "why" is based on beliefs and values directly related to one's culture. No one expects a safety professional to become an expert in every culture, but a little education on understanding the cultures of those who work with and for you can greatly improve your communication skills and your safety record.

Broadening Perspectives
Americans have a unique outlook. We are strong individualists and place great emphasis on "self-preservation," or looking out for number one. Americans believe their actions determine their own fate or outcome. Trainers are continuously taught that during a training session, there must be a tie-back for the attendee on WIIFM -- What's In It For Me. In most other cultures, the emphasis is on the collective group, not the individual. When communicating safety issues to those in other cultures, the emphasis must be more on ensuring "the group" or crew is safe and that each person is able to contribute to the safety of the whole team rather than staying focused on personal safety and health concerns.

We often believe that attendees of these groups are antisocial. This can create serious tension in the workplace or in the training room from drawing wrong conclusions. The fact is, these groups are adhering to their cultural collectivism where they are more comfortable and where they are able to look after each other. Once a relationship is established, these groups are willing to accept that new person. Until that happens, however, socializing with and acceptance of others outside the group is limited.

You may have experienced a Hispanic person telling you that he fully understands what you just explained and then watch him do the direct opposite of your instructions. Many other cultures are similar in that response because of the value of self-respect and saving face. Some people will simply not admit that they did not understand the instructions. Others may feel that they did understand, based on their cultural filter, only for us to discover that what we thought we communicated is not what they perceived or heard through that filter.

Be careful of gestures. Finger-pointing in many cultures is considered a rude gesture. It seems Americans have lost the art of being respectful in many situations. This also comes across as rude to many in other cultures. A simple "thank you" and "please" in the conversation with others is a sign of showing respect. In many cultures, failing to use those words in a sentence comes across as demanding and disrespectful. Using these words reinforces the person's acceptance and respect for another.

One more example is power distancing. Many cultures recognize people in positions of authority much differently than Americans do. To others around the world, we seem to have lost respect for our authority positions, such as openly commenting about the president or our governmental leaders, right down to the line supervisor at work. In their minds and eyes, persons holding positions of authority are to be respected and are "distanced" from them. Also, the idea that a corporate manager would "lower" himself to fraternize with employees implies that the manager is not fulfilling his role as an authority figure, and respect for that person is lost.

A safety professional or manager who fails to understand cultural differences can create his or her own international incident and not even know what has happened. Following are some quick suggestions of how to reduce the risk of alienating employees from other cultures while helping increase safety and productive performance of those employees.

Study
Although the United States makes up only 5 percent of the world's population, many Americans believe that somehow everyone else in the world needs to be like us, that we have all the answers, and that we are highly sought after for our wisdom and way of life. That is a self-made myth.

Safety professionals and managers have a responsibility to study -- to learn about the people who work with and for them. Taking the initiative to learn something about other cultures will show respect and be appreciated by those within the culture(s). There may be simple tools to cross the cultural divide, such as how to introduce yourself, what to wear, or certain gestures that are offensive. For example, in Ireland and the UK, making a peace sign with the back of your hand, as opposed to your palm, is a very rude way of telling someone to get lost. Basic research can help you avoid a faux pas.

Be Patient
Demonstrate patience. Both you and the other person are learning together. Getting angry or showing frustration is simply another way to disrespect the person or his or her culture, beliefs, and values.

Show Respect
Whether in the training room, on the work floor, or at a company function or event, there must be an effort to follow through on respecting each person for who he or she is. International businesses must respect the values and beliefs inherent within the cultures in each of the countries or regions they serve, and it carries over into the U.S. workplaces where there is an international workforce. At a social event, such as a safety luncheon or award program, shaking your boss's wife's hand is a normal, acceptable greeting in the United States, but in China, for example, it is considered highly inappropriate for a man to touch a woman in public.

Using Humor
Keep things light. Making exaggerated faces or gestures can help break the ice, particularly when dealing with a language barrier. Sometimes nonverbal communication is your best friend when dealing with cross-cultural difficulties. Also, make sure the humor is used on yourself, not in poking fun at the other person. It most likely is you making the mistake in the communication arena, so just laugh with it and learn.

Conclusion
The world is getting smaller. Whether we are in a global company or the world is coming to us in the workplace, effective communication is vital to the success of our business, in safety and health, and in our work relationships overall. As a safety professional or manager, you are responsible for the people in your charge. You are responsible for ensuring every person not only has a safe work environment, but can also be instructed in performing safely in the assigned tasks.

Right now, the injury numbers are moving in the wrong direction. To gain a foothold on reversing these trends, we have to find the solutions that will help our people stay safe, eliminate injuries, and reduce our costs so we can achieve a world-class competitive status, even if the world is only within our own workplace.

This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Randy DeVaul (randy.devaul@kcc.com), Sc.D., M.A., is a senior capability development manager in Global Safety with Kimberly-Clark Professional, which manufactures personal protective equipment for manufacturing companies throughout the world. With more than 30 years of direct safety experience, DeVaul has worked in corporate, government, and consultative positions, helping numerous employers make a difference in the lives of their employees. He holds a doctorate in Occupational Safety and Health and a master's degree in Cross-Cultural Studies..

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