I grew up in a multicultural family; my father was Italian, and my mother was Greek. A gift of fate that allowed me to learn to speak both languages fluently at my mother's knee. Through another quirk of fate, my parents didn't speak each other's language.
They communicated in French, the dominant language at our dinner table. This allowed me to learn a third language. While I spoke Italian to my father and Greek to my mother, I spoke French to myself and majored in French at university.
Speaking a second language raises our cultural awareness, and helps broaden our horizons beyond the confines of our native language. The second language is akin to giving us a second identity, an identity as a multicultural individual with numerous personal and professional advantages. Perhaps this is what Holy Roman emperor Charlemagne meant when he said, "To have another language is to possess a second soul."
But being multicultural can cause identity issues and confusion about who we are. Does being multicultural mean coming from an immigrant family (like Arab-Americans, British Indians, or Chinese Canadians?) Or, do we acquire a multicultural identity from learning to speak more than one language, or from living or working abroad?
One of the best definitions of a multicultural individual comes from a recent Harvard Business Review article, "What Makes You Multicultural." Based on the authors' research, they define multiculturalism within individuals as "the degree to which they know, identify with, and internalize more than one culture."
So, being multicultural is about more than just attending a language course. Being multicultural involves taking an interest in another culture's way of thinking and behaving, so that you understand it almost as well as your own culture.
But being multicultural is slightly different for everyone. I don't switch cultural codes by changing my behavior or tone with different groups. But others will embody different cultures depending on who they're with. This is the art of "code-switching."
Traditionally it was defined as seamlessly switching between two or more languages during a single conversation. Today, it's taken on a broader meaning. It often refers to marginalized or underrepresented individuals adapting to the dominant environment around them.
According to racial research in Harvard Business Review, code-switching describes "adjustments in one's style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities."
Katrina Bath, a researcher for Emerald Publishing, is British by nationality and Indian by blood and ethnicity. When asked if she code-switches, Katrina replied, "Yes definitely, I really notice the code-switch with my friends and cousins.
"When I'm with my South Asian friends, I notice I become "more Asian" in the way I speak. I mix some Punjabi words into my sentences, and there's a lot more banter. When I'm around my white friends, I'm freer in the topics we discuss as I'm OK with discussing "taboo" and more diverse topics with them."
Whether you code-switch or not, there are numerous benefits to being multicultural. Here are just three of the many advantages of multiculturalism in the workplace:
Creative people are open to exploring alternatives to how things are done. They can view people, situations and objects from various viewpoints. According to research published in American Psychologist, one way to develop your ability to foster creativity is to immerse yourself in a multicultural experience.
The study shows that people who have spent time assimilating more than one culture are better able to generate creative ideas in the study lab and corporate settings.
In an increasingly global world, and thanks to technological advancements, geographical boundaries have essentially vanished. These transparent barriers have made more people open to relocating for work. Companies worldwide are hiring foreign workers, leading to an ever-increasing multicultural workforce.
Developing multicultural competence to lead across cultures is vital for leadership success. Recent research published in Organization Science shows that multicultural experiences can improve a leader's communication and leadership skills when managing multinational teams.
Leaders more exposed to diverse cultures are more sensitive to cultural variations. They are, therefore, better able to convey an idea in a framework their followers are more likely to understand and value.
Depending on the type and size of the company you work for, chances are you need to serve an international clientele. A central premise of customer service is to put customers at ease, which can be challenging given the various cultures and backgrounds involved.
Multicultural people are generally more accepting and sensitive to other cultures. A multicultural workforce can enhance a company's ability to communicate with customers of different cultures. Ultimately, this means they can provide better customer service to all clients.
For example, in my hometown, North Vancouver, there's a high proportion of Chinese and Persian citizens. It's a known fact that people typically tend to have a greater level of comfort and rapport with those of their own culture. I see many businesses recruit Chinese and native Persian speakers. These employees help companies deal with customers in their native language.
Being a multicultural individual has helped me to understand and connect more deeply with people from different parts of the world. Best of all, it's helped me to cultivate cultural empathy, adaptability and patience.
Here's a quick example:
A Middle Eastern man served me once when I visited a phone outlet. He was thorough and competent in responding to my questions about fixing my problem. But I walked away from the encounter feeling uncomfortable and slightly unsettled because he avoided eye contact for 20 minutes. He looked sideways at the desk and behind me. Never once did he look at me while talking to me.
Later, when I recounted the incident to my husband, it reminded me of an essential cultural truth of some Middle Eastern countries that I had forgotten.
I spent most of my early years in the Middle East and studied Arabic in school. Here's one cultural insight I should have remembered – males and females of that region are taught to lower their gaze and avoid sustained eye contact with each other. This practice is a sign of propriety, which can be misinterpreted as rude by anyone unfamiliar with the culture.
My multiculturalism has given me an appreciation for different cultures. It's helped me to realize that something as simple as eye contact can be a potential source of misunderstanding.
After decades of living in Canada, I think like a North American while remaining Italian at heart. In multinational groups, when I speak to someone in their native language, I feel an additional sense of belonging, a sense of kinship that accelerates rapport. Sharing a communal language is the shortest bridge between two people.
About the Author:
Bruna is an educator, author and speaker specializing in emotional intelligence, leadership, communication, and presentation-skills training.
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