Cultural Awareness through Communications

Communication is the cornerstone of everything we do. Communication can inspire and inform us.

What is cultural communication and why does it matter?

We talk about America as being the great melting-pot of different cultures. For most of American history, we were culturally diverse but not culturally integrated. That has changed which makes understanding the different cultures we are likely to interact with on a day-to-day basis both challenging and extremely important.

Culture is the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society. But it’s really much more nuanced than that. It’s what we believe and value.  It’s learned and shared.  Culture provides a sense of self and of belonging. It represents how we interact and communicate all of those things and may change depending on who we are talking to.

From a communication standpoint, culture manifests itself verbally and nonverbally.  Verbal culture impacts what we say (and more importantly, what we won’t say), how we say things and how we interpret what others are saying.

Nonverbally culture affects our body language and how we interpret others from their body language and facial expressions down to even how they dress or who they’re talking to.

Culture is constantly changing.  It’s influenced by current events, historical moments in time, prevailing narratives and even economic factors.

We’re likely to interact with hundreds of cultures in our lifetime.  So don’t we want to find ways to embrace and understand each other’s cultures? Considering Cultural competency, and its four stages, is a process that can help us with that.

  1. Cultural Awareness: It’s the WHAT. What is my culture? Am I aware of other cultures?
  2. Cultural Knowledge: This is the HOW.  Now you have a little more critical thinking. How can I learn more about my culture and that of others?
  3. Cultural Sensitivity: This is the Who. Am I open to differences?  Can I respect them and avoid judging?  Why or why not?
  4. Cultural Competency: This is the why. Why does it matter that we consider all of these steps that include each and every one of us?

What do I need to tailor in order to operate in a different cultural context?

We all need tools to grow our cultural competency. These four stages may seem obvious but they can be really difficult.  This is intended simply to give you some food for thought, some evidence of why cultural competency will help you in work and provide you tools to grow your own cultural competency if you feel it’s an area you want to improve.

Here’s a brief case study – It’s from the 1970’s, focused on communicating with Hispanics because culturally these were the first corporate efforts.  Chevrolet decided to sell one of its most popular models in Latin America – the Chevy Nova.  It was affordable, reliable – the perfect car for a growing market, right?

Except that “No Va” in Spanish means “won’t go.”  It’s no great surprise that Hispanic consumers were not lining up to purchase a car that its own manufacturer declared a dud!  Yes, these mistranslations are funny, but they are also bad business. They are costly mistakes – millions of dollars in wasted marketing, unknown amounts of lost revenue because these companies were not able to break into the Hispanic market.

Here’s what these mistakes were saying to the U.S. Hispanic community:  we don’t value this relationship enough to be thoughtful about how we build it.

Cultural communication mistakes are costly – and not just monetarily – they can affect reputations and relationships, and they can cost lives.   

It’s never been more important to get cultural communication right.  It’s easy to say but what does “getting it right mean” for an organization?  First, you need to know your community and identify the cultures that you are likely to work with!  As an organization it’s wise to budget for high quality, skilled translation and interpretation at the beginning of any project if you do not have it in house.  Do you want to turn away a growing demographic because you can’t communicate with it? Or worse, you may have the clients/patients, but find that your documents are not accurate?

Here are some questions to ask a translation company before working with them:

  1. Does the company have strict quality control processes for the translation?
  2. How long has the company been in business – anyone can hang a shingle but that doesn’t mean they are using professional translators.
  3. Are the company’s translators vetted? Are their translators qualified or do they use machine translation? Or are they merely using Google Translate!
  4. Don’t evaluate a company based on cost per word – Remember the Chevy Nova – good translation is about far more than a literal translation!
  5. Will the translation company develop a glossary for you?
  6. Can the company help you understand culture rather than just translate?

To tailor your efforts you need to know where you should be directing your energies.  Part of that is understanding the demography of Loudoun County.  As a word, demography is usually defined by ethnicity not culture.  There are often a number of cultures represented in any particular ethnicity.  But the below data are useful to paint a picture.

The largest Ethnicity is Hispanic – It’s more than 13% of the Loudoun County population and growing – the population size has quadrupled from 2000 – 2014.

Asians are the next largest ethnicity.  As a demographic “Asian” is not particularly helpful in understanding culture so it helps to break it down further.  Using the foreign born residents of Loudoun (which account for 25% of the entire population) as a proxy we can assume Asian residents are generally made up of:

  • Indians (~ 20%)
  • Philippines (~ 5%)
  • Chinese (~ 5%)
  • Korean (~ 4.5%)
  • Vietnamese (~ 4%)

This breakdown is further confirmed by the top languages spoken by residents who self identify as “being able to speak English less than very well.”  Among the top languages are Korean, Chinese, Persian (Farsi), Hindi and Vietnamese.

Today, one in 10 Loudoun County residents self identify as an ethnic minority.  It’s not a matter of if you will have clients that are culturally diverse; it’s a matter of how you will build your practice to serve them.  The need for translations is inevitable so that you can communicate with your clients and patients!  Invest the time to build a culturally competent organization and you will be well positioned as this trend of cultural diversity continues to grow.

So what’s the take away?  It’s about understanding the importance of communication and the value of doing it right.  It’s about you saying:  “I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.”

Communication is the cornerstone of everything we do.  Communication can inspire and inform us.  It can elicit emotion.  It can rally troops or soothe the masses.  A great speech can, and has, calmed a nation.  A powerful book can, and has, changed cultural norms.  The power of communication is boundless. But only if it’s done well.  Otherwise it’s just words.

And as one of modern history’s greatest communicators, Nelson Mandela, said:  “If you talk to man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.  If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

From a recent Cultural Awareness through Communication presentation by Brigitta Toruño, CEO and Founder of UNO Translations and Communications.  Communication is not solely her business, it’s her passion.  She loves helping organizations with everything from translation, to face-to-face interpretation, to phone interpretation and video. UNO Translations and Communications offers “linguistic insurance”!

To learn more about Brigitta’s public speaking prowess and to book her,  click here.

Cultural Awareness through Communications