culture and language

Why Cultural Diversity is Hard

Cultural diversity is not appreciating food and music from other countries.  Appreciating food and music from other countries is food and music appreciation.

Functioning in a culturally diverse environment (your workplace, say) means accomplishing a task without being a total jerkface to others.  It’s tempting to think, Well I’ll just be polite and respectful to everyone and their culture, and everything will be great!  We’ll all go out after work to enjoy food and music and it’ll be the best time ever!


What happens when being polite and respectful to you looks like being rude to me?  I had a student in a five-day interpreter training who sat with his arms crossed, mostly silent for the first three days.  I was like, Dang, this dude is totally rude, and he hates my guts.  Then on the forth day when we talked about non-verbal communication and body language, he explained that he knew in US culture, crossing your arms is considered a sign of disinterest, of closing yourself off.  But in the country where he grew up as a schoolboy, if you didn’t cross your arms in class to show respect and attention to the teacher, you’d be beaten.  Beaten.  I assure you: He was not crossing his arms in my class because he was afraid I’d beat him.

Our behaviors lie at the core of our beliefs, values, and experiences.  Stuff other people say and do is not about you.  It’s not because they hate your guts, as I sometimes believe.  I felt at once relieved that he didn’t hate my guts, and foolish for thinking that his behavior was all about me.

This gets especially tricky in the medical setting for people who don’t speak English.  It requires a willingness to step out of the framework informed by your own values and beliefs, and use a set of values and beliefs (let’s call it culture) to re-frame what was said or done.  Can you accept values and beliefs that you don’t understand?  Can you stomach values and beliefs that are completely at odds with your own?  Can you minimize conflict between a doctor and patient whose values are at odds?  A doctor who values the patient knowing all about her condition and making decisions about her care, and a patient who values the doctor’s opinion above all else and doesn’t trust him when he asks her what she wants to do?

As an interpreter, can you remain neutral when interpreting for a doctor, nurse, or patient whose words and actions stomp all over your own values?  As an interpreter, you get to keep your values and beliefs.  You get to keep your life experiences. But you have to understand how they’re affecting the work you’re doing.  You have to know how your professional value of neutrality causes a conflict with your personal values.

I love the challenge of functioning in a workplace and a world of many languages and cultures.  It doesn’t always feel good.  It’s always worth exploring.  Please share your comments.


2 thoughts on “Why Cultural Diversity is Hard”

  1. Your example of the student with crossed arms is great. Understanding cultural differences such as these are crucial to successful interpreting. I lived in South America for 5 years and learned a lot about the culture and language nuances which really helps me as an english spanish interpreter in Texas now.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Seth! I agree–we have to understand how cultural differences can cause misunderstandings in order to be successful interpreters. I am still learning.

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