Cultural diversity greatly impacts first impressions. Let me use myself as an example. Some who know me have described me as a friendly, sensitive woman. I am a well-educated, seasoned traveler who has lived in five different countries. As a consequence, I have been exposed to different cultures, speak three languages fluently and can manage my way around in a couple more.
Some people meeting me for the first time focus only on my first name. They assume I am an Arab. To some of them, I might as well be a terrorist. When informed that I’m Hispanic, some have told me that I’m too tall to be Hispanic. I have also been accused of lying as to my origin because my New Yorker’s syntax and accent. When I explain that I lived in the Bronx for 23 years, some have questioned how I got into Columbia University for my M.A.,and then the University of Miami School of Law for my J.D. They assume that people from the Bronx don’t have that kind of money and it never occurs to them that I earned scholarships.
Because I don’t fit their expectations, some people judge me negatively. Despite my having a Known Traveler Number, I have been taken aside and questioned at two airports. It was probably triggered by my name and nothing else, since I have never been arrested nor are there any outstanding warrants against me. People with good intentions have even suggested that I change my name.
When confronted with someone who doesn’t feel familiar or who seems outside of the realm of what is “normal,” some people jump to negative conclusions. But perceptions of what is familiar or normal are not universal and are shaped by the perceiver’s cultural background.
Your client will act and ask questions from his or her cultural point of view, which may not be mainstream American culture. You may argue: “ But they are in the United States. They should adapt to the American Way.” Although some will get to that point, they may not be there today. You don’t jump off a plane and instantly become Americanized. It doesn’t work that way.
Many immigrants go through a type of culture shock. Suddenly everything is unfamiliar and they cling to their own cultural values, language, and customs. It’s a type of survival mechanism. This is especially true for older folks. I saw it in my mother and grandmother. Kids (I was 9 years old when I arrived at this country) tend to be much more flexible. As soon as we start school, we want to “fit in.” In a way, that’s our survival instinct.
I intend to present two types of articles in the coming months. The first type will use anecdotes from my vantage point as an immigrant,a traveler, a former professor of English as a Second Language, and a mediator to suggest how to deal with diversity.
In the second type I will offer you an alternative point of view related to questions or anecdotes you bring to my attention that feature challenges and opportunities presented by cultural diversity. I will not have all the answers, but I look forward to the opportunity to figure out behaviors that may help us address those challenges and opportunities.
About the Author
Isis Clemente, MA, JD, is the founder and president of Orientation and Mediation Services, Inc., which offers mediation, arbitration, coaching and group training and helps clients see their options. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (954) 683 3800.