While at brunch with good friends yesterday, I couldn’t stop laughing while reminiscing about an interaction that took place about a year ago. I was at an event chatting with my friend Megan, when I was approached by a complete stranger — a very pleasant woman who was politely trying to make conversation … except, here’s a rough transcription of the conversation that ensued:
Woman: Hi there! I’m guessing you are Indian. Do you make samosas?
Me: Umm, no … are there samosas here?
Woman: No. But you know, I once had a neighbor named Raj who was from India.
[Awkward pause while I processed this].
Me: Oh … that’s nice?!
Woman: Yeah, he was a great guy!
At this uncomfortable juncture, I was scanning the room for Megan when I noticed she had drifted off into a corner, trying hard not to laugh.
I guess I understand what the woman was trying to do — she was furiously racking her brain trying to find anything and everything she could think of with an Indian connection and spat it out, hoping it would resonate with me and that she would seem culturally savvy.
Needless to say Megan and I had a good laugh about it afterward — but when you think about it, the utter lack of ability to communicate with someone of a different culture or background is no laughing matter at all. Especially in an organizational setting where it has the ability to negatively affect business outcomes.
Think about how diverse our organizations are today. Now, I grew up in another country and am perfectly comfortable striking up conversations with folks from all over the world — in fact, many of my closest friends reside internationally. That doesn’t mean I fully understand their different cultures — but I at least know better than to go up to a friendly looking Japanese stranger and offer up lines such as: Do you wear kimonos? Do you cook with chopsticks? I know a chef named Yoko.
Something we may not think about too often is how to facilitate discussions and help build relationships among members of diverse teams within our organizations. Educating leaders and employees on cultural relevance — even on seemingly insignificant things, like how to approach someone and make a connection — can go a long way.