When I meet someone new and they ask me where I am from, my head immediately starts to spin like a roulette wheel, and I think, What’s the best answer?
A simple question like this is one of the most difficult questions for me to answer (there are others), but in the end, such difficulty has always worked to my advantage.
In my early years, when people asked and I responded, “I am from Spain,” they would reply, “Oh yeah? Really? But where are you from besides Spain? Are there any black Spaniards? Are you adopted? Are you a refugee?” I had to start explaining myself because telling people I was born in Spain didn’t seem to convince them. So, I would elaborate by answering, “My parents are from Equatorial Guinea,” and I made sure to highlight, “in Africa”. To that, I often received replies such as, “So, you are African…oh!!! But you are not so black. Are either of your parents white?” I would respond that both of my parents are black and there are different complexions in Africa. Still not convinced, people would often remark, “Oh, I see; but your features are not so African”. My answer to that was, “Africa is a huge continent with different ethnic groups.”
More recently, people have assumed that I am a Black American. When I speak, however, they ask, “Where is your accent from? Ohhhh, you must be from Costa Rica or Colombia” or “You must be Brazilian”, or “Obviously, you are Caribbean”, and so on.
Cultural identity is critical for our well-being and development. It can be difficult and confusing to grow up living in two or three worlds and to look different from the majority, but it can bring fortune, too. Ownership of culture directly adds value to cultural identity, and understanding one’s culture means understanding oneself.
About seven years ago, I started to define myself as a cultural hybrid in my bio, on social media, and in interviews. Each day since then I have grown happier to embrace the concept that perfectly explains my cultural identity.
Cultural hybrids are people who have internalized two or more different belief systems and feel comfortable in all of them. We are capable of switching back and forth instantly between the common behaviors of each culture. I belong to several cultures––African, Spanish, and American, and in the last few years I have adopted German, Latin American, and Asian cultures, and I have always been immersed in the Middle Eastern culture too. Why not?
Multicultural individuals, or hybrids, are people engaged in a process of transformation who move with ease and familiarity between different cultures while still retaining a sense of our authentic selves. Our cultural complexity is the key component to our identity and how we can use it to contribute to the workplace.
As national politics and discourse seem to grow more inward-looking and divisive across America and Europe, successful businesses must continue to think inclusively and globally. Embracing cultural diversity in the workplace is an important first step for businesses that want to be competitive on an international scale. That’s why it is very interesting to analyze what multicultural individuals are bringing into organizations and into society. According to Harvard Business Review, some multicultural individuals translate their differences into career success.
Multiculturalism brings together a diverse set of cultures and ethnic backgrounds in the work environment. Whether people are from various socio-ethnic backgrounds or different countries, many employers have shown that a diverse business culture offers many advantages but also some challenges.
- Integration across multicultural teams can be difficult in the face of prejudice or negative cultural stereotypes. Although outright prejudice or stereotyping is a serious concern, ingrained and unconscious cultural biases can be a more difficult challenge to overcome when trying to achieve workplace diversity. Even though local expertise is an invaluable asset, it’s important to foster integration among teams to avoid colleagues from different countries working in isolation and limiting knowledge transfer. The solution to avoiding uncomfortable situations that prejudice and cultural stereotypes can bring is to educate the team so they understand others, and learn to be flexible, and to cultivate a sense of humor.
- Conflicting working styles across teams. Working styles and attitudes towards work can be very different, reflecting cultural values and compounding differences. If not recognized and accounted for, conflicting approaches to work can limit productivity. For example, approaches to teamwork and collaboration can vary notably. Some cultures value collective consensus when working towards a goal, whereas others put emphasis on the independence of the individual. It’s important to take this into account and have teams with blended styles that complement each other.
- Professional communication can be misinterpreted or difficult to understand across languages and cultures. Language barriers are just one challenge. Even in an office where everyone speaks English, comprehending a range of accents or understanding a native speaker’s use of idioms can be difficult. Effective cross-cultural communication comes down to much more than the words that are spoken. Non-verbal communication is a delicate and nuanced part of cultural interaction that can lead to misunderstandings or even offense between team members from different countries. That’s why it is very important to create a multicultural policy and programs within the company.
- Different understandings of professional etiquette: Colleagues from different cultures can also bring with them different workplace attitudes, values, behaviors, and etiquette. While these can be enriching and even beneficial in a diverse professional environment, they can also cause misunderstandings or bad feelings between team members. The different approaches to punctuality (I have tons of experience with this one!), expectation of formality (or relative informality), organizational hierarchy, dealing with confrontation, and even working hours can conflict across cultures. Putting aside time to connect on a deeper level with different teams and inviting open communication in meetings to express how people understand the etiquette is very necessary! I have witnessed this firsthand myself while doing workshops to unleash teams’ potential, especially in Africa.
– More Ideas and More Creativity: Different cultures have different ways of approaching problems. When you have a group of diverse cultural backgrounds, everyone is looking at situations through a different lens or with a unique perspective. This wealth of viewpoints brings in a wide array of ideas that can benefit any team.
– Builds Respect Among Employees: People often say or do things that are disrespectful of others due to old-school beliefs and ignorance. When employers hold diversity training and teach team members about diversity, positive things can result. Role-playing puts workers in one another’s shoes to provide perspective. Potluck lunches use the love of food to engage employees in a dialogue about family or cultural history. These small things lead to increased conversations. The resulting communication leads to respect among employees, who will gain a better understanding of appropriate interactions and an appreciation of their co-workers and the viewpoints they bring to the team. I can give testimony to how diversity training is key to the success of multicultural organizations.
- Improves Customer Service Having a multicultural workforce shows a different face to the public. Customers have a chance to speak with someone who knows their native tongue or understands certain customs. Whether it is language or understanding specific holidays, a multicultural workforce engages even a small business in a global marketplace.
- Enhances Work Environment A diverse corporate culture has a direct impact on getting things done well, and it is a huge advantage for business owners. Embracing multicultural concepts at work helps people feel appreciated for who they are and the unique skills they offer. Valued and appreciated employees tend to be happier, and happier employees tend to be more productive.
- Global market knowledge and insight makes a business more competitive and profitable A multicultural workforce can give an organization an important edge when expanding into new markets. Often, a product or service needs to be adapted to succeed overseas. Understanding the target market’s local laws, regulations, and customs, as well as the competitive landscape, can help a business to thrive. Also, local connections, native language skills, and cultural understanding can boost international business development exponentially, and being more competitive ultimately means being more profitable.
- Greater opportunity for personal and professional growth. An inclusive and culturally diverse business will attract talented, ambitious, and globally minded professionals who will appreciate the opportunity for personal and professional growth. Working across cultures can be a truly enriching experience, allowing others to learn about perspectives and traditions from around the world. Bonding over similarities and differences can help workers to become global citizens, abandoning prejudices or an ethnocentric world view—something that is increasingly valuable.
Wherever you are from, celebrate it! Whatever your cultural identity is, celebrate it! I do! Every person can make a unique and positive contribution to the larger society because of, rather than in spite of, their differences. Imagine a world where diversity and hybridity are recognized and respected, all cultural ideas are acknowledged and valued, contributions from all groups are encouraged, people are empowered to achieve their full potential, and differences are celebrated.
In my opinion, multiculturalism, diversity, and hybridity bridge worlds and allow us to think about a future world where complexity is seen as an asset rather than a liability.
“Diversity is the one true thing we have in common.
Celebrate it every day.”