Updated: Oct 21, 2020
Diversity has often been described as both the beauty and the test of human civilization. By fostering inclusion, we can celebrate the uniqueness of every person and create a more beautiful workplace, community, and world. Inclusion will create unity and give everyone a voice. Inclusion begins as we Recognize, Respect, and Reconcile differences. We call this process the 3Rs Framework. As the first of three articles in a short series, this article focuses on the first R: Recognize.
In our world so full of diversity, the first step towards fostering inclusion and celebrating that diversity is to recognize differences. Individuals we encounter may look different, speak differently, have a different personality than we do, or have unfamiliar cultural preferences. Take sushi, for example. Sushi has been a part of Asian cuisine for close to 2,000 years, yet it didn’t become popular in Western countries until the 1970’s. Why? A cultural aversion to the consumption of raw meats based on the fear of food poisoning and the assumption that raw foods are uncivilized. However, once western chefs recognized the culinary adventures this Japanese staple offered, their perspective of sushi shifted from its being uncivilized to chic, and sushi became a mainstream food choice. This difference in food culture that had once created tension instead brought diversity to western restaurants. Today, many westerners consider sushi a delicacy and going out for sushi is no longer strange or uncommon.
The way we view people, their dress, mannerisms, and even food preferences is a product of our cumulative cultural and social experience. If we want to cross the cultural gap and connect on a deeper level with our friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, we have to start by recognizing the differences that make us each unique—just like recognizing that sushi wasn’t dangerous; it was just different. As we recognize and become curious about different cultures and seek to understand what makes them unique, we should identify those aspects that make us uncomfortable or uncertain, like eating raw fish in sushi.
So, if you’re one of the many people who has a cultural fear of raw fish, how can you get yourself to try sushi for the first time? Well, you’ll need to learn to respect it. In the west, the art of food preparation isn’t particularly respected outside of Food Network, so people typically look at a sushi chef with about the same amount of respect as they do the chef at the local diner. However, in Japan, being called a sushi chef is an honored title gained only after years of apprenticeship. The fish used to make sushi is delicate and must be treated with a great deal of respect and skill. The sushi chef knows how to keep consumers healthy and provide a delectable meal—and is more than worthy of your respect. This level of precision is how western chefs incorporated sushi into a new culture, so you can rest assured that sushi will be a high-quality experience (though it’s always wise to exercise caution at a seafood buffet). Recognizing our differences puts us on the path to celebrate and embrace our diversity.
Understanding Cultural Dimensions
To recognize our differences, we must start by assessing our own characteristics and background. Knowing who we are and understanding our personal cultural norms makes it easier to recognize the uniqueness of others. Many scholars, including Erin Meyer and Geert Hofstede, were spurred by the idea of increasing people’s ability to recognize the uniqueness of others. Meyer and Hofstede explored and categorized major cultural differences found throughout the world, thereby allowing individuals to recognize their own behaviors and consider how they could seem unfamiliar to others.
Hofstede and Meyer’s cultural dimensions compare common areas of workplace practices in different countries on a spectrum of behavior and values. The dimensions include areas such as the structure of social hierarchies, whether it is appropriate for individuals to interact outside of their social rank, or whether society prioritizes the good of the collective versus the good of the individual. For example, in many Asian countries, organizations follow a very hierarchical, pyramidal structure, while workers in the U.S. and Europe may experience less hierarchical, more networked structures. Part of the recognition phase is learning which dimensions are most important to the culture of the person with whom one is attempting to build a relationship.
Recognizing Cultural Differences
The way different cultures view and prioritize values leads to differences in cultural norms and public, school, and workplace interactions. Ultimately, knowing how another’s background and customs differ from personal customs is key to understanding how to react to differences in ways that will build bridges and respect.
Recognizing cultural differences is made up of two parts:
Understanding the beliefs, characteristics, and experiences that make up a person’s own culture
Actively seeking to understand another individual’s important cultural beliefs and customs, not just noting the differences
Many people underestimate the challenge of recognizing differences. Personal culture develops over time from experiences with family, social, and work interactions. Psychologically, these experiences imprint in us from an early age and weave themselves into the fabric of our personalities. When we understand that our personal culture is rooted so deep it becomes clear why it is often so difficult to understand cultures that are not our own—and when we don’t understand them, we’re not truly recognizing them.
Let’s look at an example. Suppose that an American company recently started purchasing supplies from a Brazilian firm. Over a short period of time, the American company cycled through several employees given the responsibility to purchase supplies from the Brazilian firm until they landed on one who produced the kind of results they wanted. Although everything seemed to be going well, it soon became apparent that the relationship between the two companies had become strained. Why?
Those who have grown up in America’s individualistic culture, where the business focus is more on results than relationships, would probably spend their time going through contracts or reports, trying to pinpoint what had gone wrong. To Brazilians, the answer would probably be very different, yet clear to them: cycling through multiple employees did not allow the two companies to build relationships. Brazil is a highly collectivist society, where relationships and group wellbeing are prioritized first, and people focus deeply on building trust and forming bonds, including in the business environment. Assigning a specific employee to the purchasing function for a long time period would show the Brazilian company that the American company cares about developing a relationship with them more than they care about streamlining processes to build their bottom line. When working across cultures, the answer is often much simpler than one would expect. Taking a moment to recognize and understand cultural differences will pay dividends in the end.
This example illustrates how deeply culture is ingrained in us—to the point that it even impacts the way we transact. Developing recognition—the ability to understand new cultures—is vital to survival in international business and to building successful teams where every member is integrated and contributing, no matter their background.
Embracing the Individual
Recognition is not only about understanding other cultures on an intellectual level but also on a personal one—becoming curious and embracing the way other people do things. The key is to learn about another person’s culture in an attempt to better know the individual, whether that be a friend, neighbor, colleague or anyone else. Understanding culture this way helps us interact with others, learn more about them, and provides a common language (sometimes literally) to facilitate open and effective communication. Take the case of an American businessman who is transferred to his company’s headquarters in Seoul, South Korea. The businessman latches onto a few cultural dimensions, like the fact that Korean culture tends to be hierarchical, and uses this to stereotype his coworkers. By putting everyone in a box, he can’t help but ignore individual traits and only manages to upset his colleagues. In situations like this, communication breaks down and bridges are burned, not built. This is why the focus must be on the individual.
The core of diversity and inclusion should be a desire to understand each other. We all have conscious and unconscious biases to battle, and the recognition step of the 3R’s framework helps us begin to identify them. When we acquire knowledge, we can tackle our biases and step away from our hesitancies to see and do things differently.
Recognition contributes to inclusion, and inclusion allows for the beauty of diversity. But while recognition is an important first step, it is just that. Without the other two components of the diversity and inclusion puzzle–respect and reconciliation–any attempt at diversity and inclusion will fail to gain momentum. Check out our resources for respect and reconciliation, and our resources for developing cultural intelligence with our BUILD Global Leadership Assessment. Culture runs deep within each of us. The more we can do to understand it, the easier we create a more connected world.