Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Why Culture Matters

Last week, the Corporate Volunteer Council of the Twin Cities (CVC) of which Bremer Bank is a member, hosted the program “Why Culture Matters” at Neighborhood House in St. Paul, Minn. The program featured a panel of individuals from a variety of different cultures and backgrounds sharing some perspective on what culture means to them and what things corporations should consider when volunteering with different cultural groups. Leading the panel was Gary Wederspahn (pictured left), an intercultural trainer, consultant and coach, who is also a volunteer at the Neighborhood House. Joining him on the panel were: Armando Camacho, president of Neighborhood House; Kalue Her, a development research manager at Neighborhood House; and Jon Reynolds, a basic needs specialist at Neighborhood House.

Each panelist shared some perspective based on their backgrounds and roles within Neighborhood House, a nonprofit organization based in St. Paul that provides multi-cultural and multi-lingual programs in basic needs, education, youth leadership servicing more than 10,000 participants annually. Camacho is Puerto Rican and talked a bit about his family coming to America and the true joy that he sees every day in the work done at Neighborhood House. Her, a native Hmong, immigrated to the United States with her family when she was very young. She talked about serving as the interpreter for her parents as she had learned English at a young age. She also discussed the need to give back and the sense of pride she feels working at Neighborhood House, where she is a living example of success achieved by Hmong immigrants. Reynolds was born and raised in Milwaukee and has experienced many eye opening experiences working at Neighborhood House. He talked about his struggles and embarrassing moments as he continues to learn about the different cultures served at Neighborhood House.

Wederspahn talked about the different attitudes we have about culture, which also play a part in how we interpret actions and mannerisms. For example, during the panel he did a role play where he pretended to be interviewing for a job. He talked quietly with his head down and did not make any eye contact. He asked what people’s impressions were of him and if they would consider hiring him. Camacho stated that he viewed the candidate as being respectful, whereas a Caucasian and Midwest businessman in the audience said he viewed the candidate as introverted, shy and not a good candidate. Interesting difference! Wedersphan also talked about the different spatial comfort level amongst cultures. For example, in Japan people stay some distance away from each other when they are talking so there is room to bow your head. In the United States, we have a certain comfort distance that is about an arms length away. In European countries, two people talking to each other (especially those of the same sex) can almost have their toes touching. This can make for a very uncomfortable situation when working with others from different backgrounds.

So how do you train your volunteers to work with diverse cultures so that they feel comfortable and effective? After listening to the panel, I decided that it's not as much about training, as it is about encouraging those we work with to be genuinely interested, curious and comfortable in asking respectful questions about the customs, beliefs and backgrounds we want to know more about. Simply ask, for example, where are you from? May we shake hands, or would you prefer not to? Don’t worry about being offensive or saying the wrong thing. Just ask. Most people would prefer you ask, rather than make assumptions about them, their background and what cultural tendencies they have. Good advice for everyone. The demographic landscape of the Midwest continues to change and evolve and those of us who have lived in the Midwest our entire lives need to start learning, if we haven't already, about the new and diverse cultures.

Susan Beatty, PR and Communications, Bremer Bank

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