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Making people feel at home is an art

Imagine that you walk into a business, look around and notice nobody else looks like you. You’re a different age, perhaps, or you may have a different skin color.
 Linda S. Wallace

Imagine that you walk into a business, look around and notice nobody else looks like you. You’re a different age, perhaps, or you may have a different skin color.

What would you do?

1) Turn away and walk out.

2) Explore the new location.

3) Think of it as an opportunity to learn.

At work and in our private lives, we encounter new people and situations that push us outside our comfort zone. When we learn by experience, it’s difficult because there are no cheat sheets or guide books. Chances are we are going to make mistakes and feel ill at ease.

To make diversity work, communities need a culture that supports teachers and learners. When we walk into a restaurant where we are unfamiliar with the culture, wait staff need to teach customers about the customs and guide them.

In diversity rich communities, everyone needs to be a teacher and a learner.

Guide posts for teachers

Try to think like nontraditional customers.  Pretend you are walking inside your business for the first time. Would you feel welcomed? Is staff trained to be nonjudgmental and welcoming?

 Learn to read facial expressions and body language. Don’t wait for out-of-place learners to sum up the courage to ask for help. Go out and look for people who appear anxious or unsure. When I took my niece and nephew to Disney World years ago, we took a few steps inside the park and glanced down at our maps. A hostess walked over to welcome us, asking if she could answer any questions.  Later on, I asked my teenage nephew what he had enjoyed most during the trip. To my amazement, he replied, “I liked the way I was treated.”

Accept learners where they are. Not everyone who walks into a Chinese food restaurant will feel comfortable with chopsticks. Have alternative dining ware ready for use. If you’re a Mexican restaurant that greets diners in Spanish (“Hola”), you might use English as well (“Hola, hello!”)  If the customer responds in Spanish, then proceed. If the customer appears to be uncomfortable, switch back to English. The same holds true for wait staff who like to use pet names for customers: darling, honey, sweetie, etc.  If your language makes your customer feel uncomfortable, you will decrease the size of your tip.

Be prepared and take reasonable risks: My friend owned a beauty shop that catered to African-American clientele. One day, a white woman walked in and asked to have her hair done. My friend looked at her hair – not her skin color – and concluded she could do the hair. The woman ended up being a great customer. No beautician to the celebrity stars would ever say, “I can’t do (black, white, Asian, Hispanic) hair.” If you want to get to the top, you’ve got to be a committed learner.

For Learners:

Ask questions. Delay making statements or generalizations, however, until you are more knowledgeable and learn the cultural customs.  Sometimes, we will find that businesses lack the appropriate tools and materials to support their newcomers or learners. About 10 years ago, I walked into an Asian restaurant for dim sum but all the prices were written in Chinese. When I asked questions, I found some of the wait staff couldn’t speak English. I approached the manager to propose that he prepare special cards or brochures in English to place atop tables for newcomers.

Be willing to adapt. If a cat owner stayed overnight at the house of a dog owner, she wouldn’t treat the dog like her cat. We have to adapt and adjust our behaviors.

Whenever possible, take a guide with you. It helps to take a knowledgeable friend along when we step outside our comfort zones. This accelerates learning and lends us a degree of credibility.

Take time to reflect on the lessons and insights. How can this information lead to better relationships and more diverse collaborations?

(Linda S. Wallace is The Cultural Coach. Read her blog, Cultural IQ, at http://theculturalcoach.typepad.com/cultural_iq/)

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