Unfamiliar cultural interactions are challenging, and you should look at your success and failures as personal and professional development. There will be times when you will be involved in cultural misunderstandings, make “cultural bloopers,” or take part in a cultural conflict. This is just a part of the process of navigating through cultural terrain. When this happens, you need to focus on the value of self- improvement. Do not berate yourself over the mistake; learn to “learn and let go.” When it is an employee who makes the mistake, do not compare them to others; rather, set a standard for improvement within cultural interactions and help the employee to get there. Notice how Jodi felt about herself in the following case study:
Jodi is a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technician. She’s been in the field for ten years and works with a variety of patients from different cultural backgrounds. One day, an African woman, Aziza, her son, Guleed, and her husband, Hussein, comes into the clinic for an MRI. The son accompanies his parents and interprets as needed because, although they understand English, they have difficulty speaking it.
Jodi calls the patient to the MRI room. Her co-worker, Melinda, assists her with the preparations and is with her in the room. Jodi prepares for the MRI by giving Aziza instructions, “You will lie down on the machine. You need to be very still or we have to start over.” Jodi then turns to Guleed and speaks slowly, “Can you tell your mother that she needs to be very still when she’s in there?”
Guleed understands and explains the MRI procedures to his mother. He then says to Jodi, “My mother has done this before. She had an MRI three years ago. She knows what to do.”
“Okay,” Jodi says. Again, her next instructions to Guleed are spoken in a slow pace, “Does she need medication to help her with staying still?”
Guleed shakes his head. “She’s fine. She’s done this before.”
Jodi then turns to Aziza and says very slowly, “If you need help or to call us, you push this button.” Her gestures to the family are overly emphasized when pointing to the call button. “Can you tell her to push this button if she needs help?” Guleed, looking more frustrated as the instructions are dictated, nods his head and explains to his mother.
After the MRI, Jodi courteously thanks the family and says, “You all did a very good job. Have a good rest of your day.” The family quickly walks out and Guleed gives a slight smile in response.
Jodi and Melinda return to their work, and Jodi says “That family was interesting. It was so nice of that boy to come with his parents to interpret, don’t you think?”
Melinda turns to Jodi and replies, “Yes, it was a good thing that he was there.” She hesitates and then says, “But you know, you probably didn’t need to talk like that to them.”
With surprise, Jodi says, “Talk like what?”
“You were talking really slowly to them. It seemed like they didn’t appreciate it. The son knew English very well and was fine interpreting and understanding what you told him.”
Jodie replies, “Oh. But in that class we took the trainer said we should talk slow and not use big words so they can understand us. That’s what I was doing. I mean, she probably didn’t know what I was talking about so I had to talk slow to help her understand.”
“Yeah, that’s true but you were really dramatic about it. They’re not deaf. They just have a harder time grasping the language.”
Jodi pauses and then says, “You’re right. How embarrassing! I hope they don’t think badly of me. I was just trying to get them to understand what they needed to do. Next time I’ll do it differently.”
Jodi tries to apply what she has learned in cultural competency training, yet she is not able to apply the learning in a way that is appropriate to different racial and ethnic groups. This is evident when her colleague, Melinda, informs her that she thought Jodi used the wrong cultural competency tools. Jodi’s instant emotional response was to be offended and to feel guilty for her intercultural mistakes. However, she realizes that her experience and mistake will only improve her ability to work better with different cultures.
Jodi can use the CI principles to help her in the following way:
Acquire: In this case study, Jodi has good intentions to be respectful of another culture. But what she is not picking up on are the verbal and nonverbal cues of her environment. If Jodi can identify what she did well and where she could improve, she can better assess her level of understanding culture in this situation. Jodi has worked with families of different backgrounds, but it seems as if no one has told her that she was unintentionally creating an uncomfortable environment for those families. To acquire information about culture that can be helpful to her in future situations she can start with recognizing what cultural facts and knowledge she may already have. For example, she speaks slower to this family so they can understand. Yet she needs to know that not all families need to be spoken to in this manner.
Build: If Jodi can take the knowledge she has, speaking slower in English can help those who are not English native speakers, and combine this with the knowledge that not all non-English speakers need to be spoken to in this way, then she will begin to build her awareness for when speaking slowly would be appropriate. When she does this, she is creating new information and making new sense of the cultural information.
Contemplate: Even though Jodi is familiar working with families of different cultures, she can always approach the situations with new lenses or perspectives. By asking herself what she sees and does not see in the situation, she can shift her mindset from one that treats all families the same to one that treats them as unique. Contemplation requires Jodi to reflect on her biases as well as the unintentional consequences that come about because of her need to be culturally appropriate.
Do: As she practices the strategies she creates for each family situation, she will learn what works and does not work for each family. She may even be surprised that she is adapting and changing her behaviors with every family she treats, even if the families share similar cultural backgrounds and interests. The more she practices and evaluates, the more she will reduce her need to be perfect in every cultural situation. Instead, she will learn that her mistakes become cultural lessons in practice.