Diversity Challenges in the Workplace
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Last week, we talked about the new census numbers that show that a third of the country's population is now a member of a racial minority, and what that means for two cities. But we also want to talk more personally about what that change can mean in our daily lives. So today, diversity at work - and while many of us may cringe when the company signs us up for diversity training, many of us may also feel that we could use a little help navigating the tricky waters of multi-cultural living.
So today, Valorie Burton. She is an author and a life coach. She'll join us from time to time along with our other life etiquette and relationship coaches to help smooth out those sticky situations that diversity sometimes presents us with. Valorie Burton, she joins us from her office in Annapolis, Maryland. Welcome, Valorie.
Ms. VALORIE BURTON (Life Coach; Author, "Why Not You?: 28 Days to Build Authentic Confidence"): Thanks so much, Michel.
MARTIN: Valorie, how did you get in to life coaching?
Ms. BURTON: I got in to life coaching because I had begun writing, and I knew my purpose was inspiring people to live more fulfilling lives. And as my first book came out, I was doing a lot of media, and they kept calling me a life coach. And I finally decided I should stop arguing with them and determine what it was, and to be trained as a coach. And so I've been coaching for about six years now.
MARTIN: Okay. Now you deal with a range of issues, just helping people - some of them - get their personal goals in line and things of that sort. But today, we wanted to talk about kind of diversity issues and some of the frictions that sometimes arise from diversity issues.
Ms. BURTON: Yes.
MARTIN: So I'd like to ask, what's the number one diversity-related challenge or source of friction that you hear about from your clients?
Ms. BURTON: Well, I think for a lot of my clients, a lot of the conflict comes from not feeling heard. I think a lot of times people - no matter what their background - end up feeling misunderstood. And because diversity issues can really be very emotional, I think it can be very easy for people to completely miss each other and to become offended - sometimes very easily offended.
MARTIN: So what - is their a rule of thumb you have, or is there sort of a general guideline that you offer people when they're feeling this way?
Ms. BURTON: Well, I think it's really important to not automatically take things personally, because a lot of times when someone has said something or done something that offends you, very often they don't even realize that it has offended you.
So I think it's really important to take the emotion out of it when you first begin analyzing it and say, you know what? This might be their lack of understanding. Maybe they just don't understand my perspective, but it might not be a personal affront to me.
MARTIN: So give people the benefit of the doubt.
Ms. BURTON: Absolutely.
MARTIN: Now we have some challenges or questions that our listeners have sent to us, which I'd like to run past you. The first is about compliments. Now, I'm sure you remember the dust up when Senator Joseph Biden called Barack Obama -also a senator - articulate…
Ms. BURTON: Yes.
MARTIN: …among other things. Now, a listener wrote us to ask what's so terrible? How do you know when it's okay to compliment people from different cultures without causing effects? This particular listener wrote to say that, you know, that he is a white male. He does not consider himself articulate, and he would be very pleased if someone would have call him articulate.
Ms. BURTON: Well, you know, I think a lot of times there is historical - we can call it baggage almost - that someone from another race or another ethnic background might not even be aware of. I think, number one, we have to - when people say it's offensive, we have to take that at face value and say, okay, maybe they've got a point I never will understand.
But I think one of the most important things we can do is to focus on what is similar about the people around us as opposed to focusing on what is different. And I think a lot of people find themselves in hot water when they focus on the thing that makes you different from me. You know, I might be looking at your hair and saying something, and the person might say, you know, I wonder why they just focus on that? They wouldn't say that to someone else that looked like them.
MARTIN: Okay, here's another one. What about issues of personal space? Say - some people say, I have a colleague from a different country and his concept of personal space is different from mine. He stands way too close to me, and it makes me uncomfortable. But I don't want to perceive as bigoted or make him feel bad.
Ms. BURTON: I think the most important thing to do is to set your own boundaries, and I think that we can tell the truth and be kind about it.
So that might mean you script out exactly what you're going to say before you say it rather than just reacting and being very negative, that you stand back and you say, okay, how could I explain this without being rude? You may not even have to bring the culture into it.
So you may say something very simple, like you know what? I know this probably doesn't bother you, but I have a thing about my personal space, and it would really mean a lot to me if we didn't stand so close when we're talking.
MARTIN: What if one person wants to speak, say, a second language other than English and another party, even if that person understands that language, doesn't want to speak that language? I mean, I have to tell you I saw this in a place that I previously worked with. One person was a fluent Spanish speaker, and there was another person who was of the same ethnic group who was also a fluent Spanish speaker. One person wanted to speak Spanish to that person. The other person did not want to.
Ms. BURTON: We really have to be respectful of each other. In that circumstance, if the other person doesn't want to speak that language, then the person who wants to really just have to respect that. If you can't force that on the other person. That doesn't mean that there are going to be some differences of opinion, and that person is not going to, you know, say, well maybe you're not as proud of your culture as I am.
MARTIN: Okay, that's a great advice. Thank you, Valorie.
Ms. BURTON: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: Valorie Burton is a life coach. She is author of "Why Not You?: 28 Days to Authentic Confidence". She joined us from her office in Annapolis. And remember, we want your questions for our culture coaches. Visit our blog at npr.org/tellmemore.
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MARTIN: Coming up: the Mochas on why they are so ready for a princess of a different hue.
Ms. DIVINA McFARLAND (Member, Mocha Moms): The reason everybody is so excited is because, you know, your daughter can have a role model now - someone who looks like she does. Well, why can't her prince look like my prince?
MARTIN: The Mocha moms on Disney's first black princess.
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MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin. You're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.