By Cathy Martin, GRCA Team of Expert for Multicultural Employee Engagement
Culture and Cake
What just happened?!
I’ll never forget that funny and awkward moment when one of my Colombian students shoved my face into the birthday cake she had made for me. I couldn’t believe it. What had just happened? I was confused and embarrassed. What was supposed to happen next?!
During the cleanup process afterward, I learned a little more about my student’s Colombian culture and their ways of celebrating birthdays. I grew up in a stoic German/Pennsylvania Dutch family. Birthday parties consisted of cake, ice cream, a few presents, some awkward games, but not much more. We cut the birthday cake and unceremoniously handed it out and ate it. We didn’t dance. We weren’t loud. We matter-of-factly ate our cake and moved on with life. Celebrations of any sort weren’t a big deal.
After earning my degree in Teaching English as Second Language, I started teaching English to adults, and my classes were filled with students from all over the world. When I entered this cross-cultural world, my birthday celebrations changed significantly. I began to learn traditions from around the world. My students threw birthday parties for me that included lots of food, dancing and music, laughter and loudness. It was so different from my own culture, but fun — except the face-in-the-cake part. Apparently in Colombia, it’s customary for the birthday girl/boy to take a bite out of the cake without touching it with their hands. Someone behind them shoves their face into the cake. I learned that the hard way!
Our Own Unique Lens
Recently I came across a “Dear Abby” letter referring to this face-in-the-cake tradition, stating how offensive and rude it is. Abby agreed in her response. However, reading further, there was a comment from someone familiar with this cultural tradition. They explained the practice from their perspective and how this tradition was an accepted and expected part of birthday celebrations. The letter and comments revealed so clearly how cultural background and understanding affect our perception of others’ behavior and the way we respond to it.
Isn’t it interesting how our actions and behaviors can be so misunderstood when someone doesn’t understand our culture? We all look at the world through our own lens.
Respect is Seeking to Understand
I grew up in a small minority culture, and I experienced cultural misunderstandings often. My experiences as a child and young adult shaped my interest in understanding cultural differences. Culture is what drives our behaviors. Misunderstanding someone’s behavior can lead to hurt, anger, or offense and a breakdown in communication. (Think, smashing their face in a cake.) Learning to understand someone’s culture is a way of showing respect and appreciation for the ways they are different than you and can help to improve your relationship with them. During my birthday celebration, understanding that cultural differences were at play allowed me to look at the situation with humor instead of becoming angry or offended that my face was now covered in frosting.
As the Multicultural Employee Engagement Expert on GRCA’s Team of Experts, I add my rich understanding of cultural differences. My personal experiences as well as years of teaching people from all over the world have given me a unique perspective on what makes us all different and yet the same. Through my years of working with students from around the world, both in the community and in the corporate environment, I’ve heard many stories of misunderstandings in their workplaces. I’ve heard their reasons for leaving companies and I’ve heard the way they’ve perceived incidents and policies within their companies. I’m excited about offering employers a chance to understand some of the most common cultural differences, and I’m excited to offer practical solutions to employee engagement issues related to cultural differences.
Cultural differences can feel overwhelming, but I often remember a piece of advice I received from my Grandma. She always said, “Treat everyone like they are your best friend.” And I saw that lived out in both my Grandma and my Mom. They went out of their way to be friendly and hospitable and worked hard to make others feel comfortable. I’ve learned that this one of the most effective ways to interact cross-culturally. My intentions to be welcoming and friendly somehow have always been communicated across language and cultural barriers. I’ve made a lot of cultural blunders over the years, but they have usually been forgiven. I’ve found that if someone believes that I don’t intend to offend them and that I’m genuinely interested in them, they will be gracious with me when I make mistakes.
Cultures can be confusing and overwhelming at times. But our differences make our world beautiful and colorful. I’m glad to live in a world where there are so many people who are so different than I am.
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