35 Dumb Things Well-intended People Say: Surprising Things We Say that Widen the Diversity Gap by Maura Cullen (2008) provides valuable insight on the choice of words in communicating with people during the course of our daily life. Words have different meanings in different contexts and cultures. So we should know which words are acceptable and which words are offensive, and also the contexts and cultures where they are applicable. Those who want to maintain good personal relationships with people in their social and business circles should take special care to use words which are appropriate for the occasion. Ms Cullen lucidly explains the situations where even well intended people say the wrong things and goes on to describe 35 dumb things that such people say, which widen the diversity gap. They may not even know that they are saying the wrong things and the affected persons may not show their resentment outwardly. Ultimately relationships are spoiled for silly reasons and misunderstandings.
In the modern world, almost everyone has to deal with diversity in his personal as well as professional life on a daily basis. It is in this context that Ms Cullen’s book offers some insights. The book outlines ways of consciously making adjustments, so that our words and behavior do not offend people who are different and have different viewpoints. The author subscribes to the view that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can scar a lifetime” (Cullen, 2008, p.8.). This is quite true, as we know from experience that ridicules and reprimands from childhood days and insults received during adulthood are never easily forgotten. Words have infinite power. Wrong words have triggered big wars and right words have stopped them (p.8.). While it is not practicable to be always on guard and analyze every spoken word before it is uttered, it pays to be aware of some common mistakes that people make while communicating with people from diverse cultures. Ms Cullen’s book will come handy in this context.
As the author herself admits, the book does not offer any in depth study about diversity or ways to deal with it (p.5.). It only offers some suggestions to avoid certain wrong usage of words which are likely to cause unpleasantness and resentment. As a diversity trainer and a speaker in the field of social justice, the author has acquired considerable experience and she intends to share some of these through this book. Anyway, the book is interesting to read and also quite informative. The author appears to advocate “political correctness” in conversation. However, she also realizes that attempting to achieve this objective can obstruct the free and natural flow of the conversation. While political correctness is seen by some as an intrusion into the first amendment rights guaranteed by the US govt., it is also seen as supportive to the fundamental right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.
Ms Cullen also stresses the need for updating our knowledge about the current usage of words, as their meanings change with time. Many words which were once acceptable have become offensive now and vice versa. “People of color” is acceptable as the polite description of black people in the place of the earlier usage, “colored people.” The word “oriental” may be used to denote something exotic. However, to use it to refer to people of Asian origin is demeaning (p.11.). Similarly the words “disabled” and “handicapped” are no longer acceptable as these imply some inherent defects in the persons concerned. By using the phrase “persons with disabilities” instead, the disabilities are perceived as being caused by “the external barriers of accessibility and inequity” (p.11.).
In the section “Intent vs. Impact,” the author illustrates the fact that the impact of an action is not mitigated by the reason of it being unintentional. The person who runs a car over a pedestrian may not have done it intentionally, but the impact on the victim is in no way reduced because of it (p.20.). Similarly the words we say with good intention can sometimes hurt the person who is at the receiving end. What we speak or do not speak should, therefore, be decided by the impact it is likely to produce on the target audience rather than our intentions behind saying those words. Another point made by the author is the effect of what she calls the “pile on principle” (p.22.). When a person is trampled on an injured toe many times during the course of his daily routine, he may put up with it patiently for the sake of behaving decently. However, when he reaches home and his spouse happens to barely touch it with her toe, he flares up and releases all the pent up emotions on her in a torrent. The spouse, having no knowledge of what has transpired during the day will definitely feel offended. Actually such piling up of feelings can happen over a period of time, may be many years in the life of many people that we interact with. “The most important element to bear in mind is that we all have videos of our past experiences, and some of the not so positive ones can pile up, until one day we cry out in pain and frustration or lash out” (p.24.).
Many of the “dumb things” that the author discusses come out of a patronizing attitude. The expression of sympathy itself reflects a condescending attitude. It is as though someone is reaching down to lifting another, which is a way of acknowledging the existence of a higher and a lower level. When a white man asks a colored person, “what do ‘your’ people think?” the impression conveyed is that the opinion of all the blacks will be same and asking one person is enough (p.70.). Another statement which the author feels is too naive is “I don’t see color” or “I am color-blind. Here it is obvious that the person says these words, because he sees color. According to the author, questions about gender to transgender individuals and comments on knowledge of local language to foreign nationals may cause resentment.
In our eagerness to establish that we are broadminded world citizens without any prejudices, we make statements which actually reveal that we are keenly aware of the very differences which we deny the existence of. The author points out that when the white people say that they believe in equality and justice, it is not likely to sound sincere, because there are some inherent advantages that the white people enjoy without their knowing it. White people can easily find personal care items that match their skin color in most of the shops. White people can be assured of friendly treatment and support from policemen. White peoples’ mistakes are not attributed to their race as a whole. When white people get into jobs, they are given credit for their hard work, but it is assumed that blacks get jobs only because of the quota (p.39.). White people don’t seem to realize that the system as a whole is skewed to their advantage.
In the context of this book, it is worthwhile examining the concept of diversity itself. We cannot expect the same response to spoken words from people all over the world. There are basic differences in how people belonging to different religions, cultures and ethnicities react to the same stimuli. The value systems, customs, traditions and the extent of modernization of societies have implications for building and maintaining relationships. People of some cultures may not like to mingle freely with people from other backgrounds. Some cultures accommodate the needs of other cultures freely in order maximize material benefits from business or profession. A typical example is the American culture. Yet in some other cultures like in some Eastern cultures, respect and understanding of each other’s cultural characteristics and accommodating them in the business arrangements are seen as very important.
The organizational structures and cultures of businesses often reflect the cultures of the societies in which they are located. Japanese firms give importance to collectivism and team work, while American firms value individualism and entrepreneurial talent. While keeping appointments and observing time schedules are the essence of business culture for western societies, Arab business owners value relationships and often indulge in pleasantries with their associates at the risk of being late for business appointments. The Western countries would like to conclude business deals as quickly as possible. However, the Middle-Eastern countries wouldn’t like to be rushed into agreements. The Arabs also give a lot of importance to religious rituals and allocate time and resources for the same. Greeting gestures and words are very much different from one culture to another. Shaking hands is predominantly part of western culture, while bowing is characteristic of Japanese culture. Indian ladies are generally greeted with folded hands and a “Namaste,” as handshakes may not be appreciated much. The amount of physical distance for comfort also varies from culture to culture.
Culture highly impacts the factors of negotiation of a business deal. While the goal of Americans may be to sign a low cost contract quickly, typical Asians may take time to understand the other party better and build a relationship. Depending on the culture, the attitudes of the parties may be win-win or win-lose. Germans tend to be formal, whereas Americans may start off informally by using first names. Americans tend to express their ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in clear words directly. When the Japanese or Egyptians express their disapproval, Americans or Israelis may fail to realize that the deal is off, and this may lead to friction. As Salacuse (2005) points out, while Americans want to conclude the deals as quickly as possible, Indians and Japanese may like to take time to study the proposals in detail to make them flawless. The Enron deal in India was cancelled on the grounds that the deal was finalized hastily without in depth study (Salacuse).
In the modern globalised scenario businesses have to compete on an international level. They have to cater to customers all over the world. In addition to sourcing raw materials and sub assemblies from foreign countries, they also have to locate production units in other countries in order to take advantage of the reduced cost of labor and capital. In addition, many organizations have adopted a policy of employing people from diverse cultures in order to pool the talent from all over the world. As a result of the drastic change in the employee composition in terms of religion and culture, professionals and even employees at much lower levels in the hierarchy have to deal with their counterparts from different religions, cultures and ethnic backgrounds. In a typical organization employing diverse cultural groups, even the strategies for recruitment, compensation, reward and retention have to be formulated with the cultural differences in view. Holidays, celebrations and important religious days have to be observed to the satisfaction of all concerned. Multinational companies have to take part in Ganesh Chathurthi in Mumbai and Durga pooja in Kolkota. While non observance of the local customs can seriously undermine the goodwill that a business enjoys, proactively participating and encouraging the local norms can actually afford an easy way to build rapport with the local community.
A vast majority of the world population is illiterate and lives in conditions of abject poverty. The religion, community and culture they belong to are the only identities that hold them together. The customs and traditions which have been handed down through generations are very precious for them. They form the building blocks of their self worth and self esteem. It is only natural that they would not like to do anything which goes against these binding forces. So everywhere in the world, all day to day activities including business and commerce are controlled by these basic forces. Customs and traditions control business deals and negotiations. Even people, who acquire new identities by virtue of their success in various fields, hold on to their basic cultural and religious identity. These identities are constantly attached to the individual by birth and cannot be discarded at will. The others in the society anticipate interactions based on this perception of individual identity and are confused if they encounter anything different. In short, religion and culture have a great influence on all activities that goes on in the world and this state of affairs is bound to continue for quite some time.
Another important fact to be noted in this context is that, to every individual, the culture and religion to which he belongs is superior to all other cultures and religions. Even educated and modern persons become defensive when their customs and traditions are ridiculed. This is why most of the wars have been fought in the name of religion and race. Terrorists and separatist groups are taking advantage of this basic human nature. Diversity gaps have been largely created due to groups trying to establish their superiority over others. The struggle of the minority groups to express themselves and the resistance by the majority groups have often led to undesirable consequences. Even when the majority groups allow the minorities to live and prosper, they consider them as second citizens. This is typical of modern societies claiming to be cosmopolitan. Though the American govt. guarantees equal rights to all citizens irrespective of caste, creed or color, it is a fact that the “people of color” have reason to feel insecure. The general attitude of suspicion towards the blacks, even from the police, creates a divide in the society.
As the cultural and religious ideologies are so important to the individual, it follows that the success of interpersonal interactions will be decided by the capability to understand and respect the culture and traditions of the people with whom we have to interact. In the modern business environment, where people of diverse cultures have to work together, side by side, for long hours, positive interactions have to be nurtured. The challenge faced by the top management is to frame policies and procedures acceptable to all sections of employees. The management must be seen as impartial and just to all employees to ensure their wholehearted co-operation. The management also has to impart training to its employees to deal with diversity. An important aspect of diversity training is interpersonal communication. Improper communication leads to misunderstandings and diversity gaps. Careless use of words can cause serious damage to the harmonious work atmosphere.
Managers of multinational corporations who are posted in a foreign country often face difficulties in controlling the local employees. Employees will most likely view his actions suspiciously in the initial stages. So he has to take pains to learn about the local culture and traditions and establish a friendly and supportive image. For this, he may have to actively participate in the activities of the local community. Advertisements that are not consistent with the local language and culture may prove counterproductive. Objectionable words and symbols have to be avoided. The problem is much more complex in multicultural societies. Names like ‘Ganesh garage works’ or ‘Rahim fashions,’ may appeal only to some sections of the society, whereas ‘ABC enterprises’ and ‘Excel foot wears’ may be more acceptable universally.
The world is now moving into an era of knowledge economy. Unlike the agrarian economy and the industrial economy, knowledge economy relies more on human intelligence, knowledge and education (human capital) for creation of value. It is being increasingly realized that different individual groups and cultures have specific knowledge and skills which other groups may lack. Many of the rituals and religious practices have been found to have some scientific basis. There is a welcome trend to adopt the best practices across diverse religions, cultures and ethnicities across the world. There is a conscious effort to identify and preserve knowledge. The task has been greatly simplified by the use of electronic capture and storage techniques. Many good habits for healthy and virtuous living were packaged with religious and cultural practices in the past and the attempt now is to rediscover them and promote them in their modern perspective. Many of the group activities in the olden days promoted psychological health and also served as social security forums. Since these were held under cultural and religious labels, the members willingly contributed. Even today, religious observances draw the biggest crowds everywhere. Unfortunately, many religious leaders consciously promote separatist tendencies to establish their supremacy.
In conclusion, religious, cultural, ethnic and linguistic differences between people have a great influence on the way they behave and react to situations. These basic differences lead to distrust and misunderstandings. Only respectful understanding of each other’s culture will help remove the psychological barriers over a period of time. Improved opportunities for education and employment will enhance the feeling of security among the minorities. Thinkers and leaders of our times have to propagate messages of equality and brotherhood rather than suspicion and hate.
Cullen, M. (2008). 35 Dumb Things Well-intended People Say: Surprising Things We Say that Widen the Diversity Gap. Wordclay.
Salacuse, J.W.( 2005). The Top Ten Ways That Culture Can Affect International Negotiations. IVEY Business Journal. Retrieved from http://iveybusinessjournal.com/publication/the-top-ten-ways-that-culture-can-affect-international-negotiations/