“What I said, what they heard”: Culture and Communication

I talk with my hands when I am excited. My deep voice resonates as my eyes seek to draw in everyone and get them as excited and engaged in the conversation as I am! Because much of my professional life has been committed to engaging people in the mission of whatever nonprofit I was heading at the time or in public speaking, this delivery style has worked for me.  Of course I know how to modulate. Finance meetings, serious HR issues and other types of professional meetings require a different approach and shifting is necessary.  But at my core, I am an amalgamation of my mother, my aunts and so many of the women in my family and community who have been my cultural role models.

Not everyone understands or even appreciates the impact culture has on communication styles.  There are many reasons for this. Any serious review of research on leadership and communication will quickly reveal that most studies on business communication are based on the responses of white males.  Because of this narrow approach, their styles become THE styles, and any other approach to communications is deemed afield of the norm. I think you can quickly assess that this is problematic. White women have been increasingly studied over the last decade, but study on the communication styles of people of color still lag.  What that leaves us with are frustrating stereotypes, miscommunication, and a lot of heartburn as we continue to communicate in a world that sees our approaches as well, lets just say it–substandard.

Let’s be clear.  Black women have taken on leadership roles and are seeking education to prepare them for these roles in record numbers.  Recent research highlights that they are very ambitious, expecting that their hard work will get them to the C-Suite. They are heading universities, in the upper echelons of government, in corporate America and are even popping up in STEM related fields, fearless and unapologetic.  However, that nagging communication thing still rears its head.  It isn’t what they are saying, it is what is being heard, deciphered, critiqued, and rejected!

You want to really cause some confusion, let’s consider the fact that Black women aren’t a monolith.  Shocking! In their research on gender and race and the impact on leadership, Janice Hucles-Sanches and Donald Davis share, “Black women may identify as African, Caribbean, Spanish, African American, or some combination of those identities… Moreover, the style of influence used by women with such complex ethnic and racial backgrounds may reflect self-confidence, independence, direct communication, and use of “strong” influence strategies that are different from those displayed by women of European backgrounds (Parker & Ogilvie, 1996).”  Indeed every race contains these multiple cultural influences.  It is this very mix of cultural backgrounds that should be America’s strength, not our weakness.

If you’ve not guessed it yet, there is a definite socio-cultural aspect to communication. Race, gender and class do matter and can work for or against you in large systems, including work environments. I read an interesting article in Forbes (Tulshyan, 2015) that was initially prompted by Sheryl Sandberg’s New York Times article, “Speaking while female.”  The Forbes piece offered additional perspectives adding speaking while female and Indian; female and Black; and female and Asian. The women interviewed  indicated that adding color to race made communication challenges even more difficult. Latina women reported people being surprised if they could calmly negotiate (where is the sassy maid?), and Asians women stunned when they were aggressive (wow, where is the compliant Asian?). They were also asked why they didn’t have accents (insert eye roll). There was a lot of discussion on whether or not to push back against the stereotypes, or let things go, possibly sustaining careers a little longer by not ruffling feathers.  The article concluded that, despite how you might be interpreted, it is worth speaking up.  There is some evidence that holding ones ground helps in the development of long term, positive work relationships, eventually teaching those around you how to broaden their lenses of understanding.

As leadership opportunities continue to expand, these challenges need to be discussed in direct ways.  When people believe their voice aren’t being heard or even worse, taken seriously, it sows a seed of frustration and resentment.  Once more, it just isn’t necessary.  When someone says,”Whoa!” in a mocking way when you are passionately engaged, or repeats what you just said, as if interpreting for you so others understand, this cannot be ignored. A subtle but clear redirect at the time of the incident will reduce the chance that happens again.  For more serious transgressions, post-meeting discussions to process what happened are critical.

There will always be those who are comfortable with the stereotypes.  It is a game of control.  I however, believe those folks will be joining the dinosaurs–if not by choice than by the reality that we are now a highly diverse nation and adjusting and respecting different perspectives is in the best interest of everyone.  People who work together everyday toward a common goal really do want to effectively communicate.  It can be a bit clumsy and awkward but taking the time to respectfully listen, question when you are unclear, and having respectful one-on-one meetings when communication breaks down will move us toward more satisfying exchanges of ideas and creative solutions.  Own your narrative, your culture, and your free expression.  It adds to a rich and meaningful life experience.

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