By: Dr. William Howe, Adjunct Professor of Education
WOMEN AND PEOPLE COLOR OFTEN BEAR THE BURDEN OF HAVING TO SPEND A LIFETIME MAKING OTHERS FEEL COMFORTABLE WITH THEM.
Those of us who grew up in the 60s probably remember spending hours watching Westerns on television. A common scene is a noisy saloon filled with people. There are classes clinking, loud arguments, a honky-tonk piano, and the occasional gunfire. Suddenly, a stranger comes to the saloon doors and the place falls silent. People gaze in awe or contempt at the person entering.
Have you ever had that experience yourself? I had that experience this week and numerous times in my life. Today, I entered a room to join a new committee and quickly realized that among the 35 people present, I was the only person of color.
Some of you may know quite well what I am talking about – being the only person who is different and receiving uncomfortable looks from others in the room. Women experience that when they enter into a room filled with men only. People of color feel this when they walk into a room and suddenly the room falls quiet. For the person entering the room, they had several choices – turn around and leave, go into the room and disappear into a corner, or learn to work the room.
Of all the lessons that we can give to women and people of color, perhaps most important is to learn how to cope with this situation. I have had people obviously uncomfortable with me present. One person blurted out that they love Chinese food. Another, for some reason, had to tell me about eating at a Chinese restaurant in the Midwest and asking if I knew the owners. We know what it’s like when people are uncomfortable with us, when people are uncomfortable with diversity. It is critical then that we teach women and students of color seven key social skills that they will need in order to learn how to fit into the current world of work. For they will have two overcome the facts that people like to hire people that they like and that they are comfortable with and unfortunately there are many who do not have enough experience with women or people of color to have a comfort level. Therefore, we must teach these key skills valued in the American world of work but often, the opposite of what is taught and valued in other cultures.
1. Speaking Up – people who speak softly are often viewed in the American culture as being insecure and weak. This is however a cultural trait often taught to people from other cultures as a demonstration of their modesty and humbleness. It is important to teach that although this skill is appropriate and valued in the culture, in order to succeed in the American workplace we must learn to speak out in a louder voice.
2. Small Talk – people are comfortable with people who are able to engage them in conversation. People who are good talkers or storytellers are able to make others feel at ease. This is a skill that must be learned by women and people of color in order to help others for comfortable with them.
3. Smiling – I once had a group of teachers from Azerbaijan asked me why American smile so much. Smiling is not culturally a common practice in other countries. Americans like people who smile because they look much more approachable. People who have great smiles, not only look better, but look more friendly and sincere.
4. Being Assertive – assertive, not aggressive, is something that we should teach students. In the American workplace, assertiveness is valued. It is seen, in other cultures as being impolite or rude.
5. Hand-Shaking – we talk about shaking hands to close the deal. We shake hands in order to judge a person. A good firm handshake sends a message of confidence and sincerity. For those from other cultures or handshaking is not a common practice, it is important to teach this skill.
6. Eye Contact- so often we hear about how quaint it is that Asians and Latinos look down to show deference to elders or their superiors. This is true. But it is not seen as a strength in the American world of work. Good eye contact must be taught.
7. Self-Promotion – most of us were probably raised being taught not to be a showoff or to brag. However, there is a time and a place when we must learn to sell ourselves. We must learn to state our skills and experiences without hesitation.
One may ask whether this is fair to ask people to fit into a culture which they obviously do not find comfortable. The reality is that until the “minorities” become the “majority” we must learn to play the game. The positive message that we must sure is that we are not giving up our culture or denying our culture, we are learning how to be multicultural. We have earned how to survive and succeed in our home culture as well as the American world of work. This is a strength. Having a degree from a reputable college is often insufficient for women and people of color. They must learn the key social skills in order to get the job and to flourish in the organization. Once they rise to the top they can begin changing the culture of the organization.
Dr. Bill Howe is an adjunct professor of education at Quinnipiac University. He is the co-author of the recently published, award-winning textbook by Sage – Becoming a multicultural educator: Developing awareness, gaining skills, and taking action. (Howe & Lisi, 2014).