Words Make Worlds: Communicating Across Differences

How do we define reality? We define it with words. We “describe” first, and then we “see.” Every group wants to have control over how it is defined. This includes Native Americans’ concern about the use of the name “Redskins” for a football team, or the use of the n-word by a white football player when speaking of an African-American teammate as proof that “we are like family and can talk like that to one another.”

We know that words can hurt and even kill; sticks and stones and words can break your bones. I was recently at a conference where a presenter was describing a hypothetical situation by saying “He/she had to make a decision on the compensation scale.” An audience participant noted that using the term he/she was exclusionary, as it did not provide an option for a transgender individual and defined reality as a duality between males and females. The presenter was grateful for the insight.

Working across cultures, the chance for making mistakes grows exponentially. For example, I have witnessed dozens of examples of Westerners meeting Asians at a conference and asking “Are you Japanese”? To these Westerners, this is an innocent question, while to any non-Japanese, the question may seem offensive. We are all going to unknowingly and mistakenly use names and phrases that hurt others. When this happens, we would hope that the person offended would explain why he or she was offended so the person making the comment would be given the opportunity to reflect on their comment and clarify any misunderstanding. If we made a mistake, we want to be forgiven and forgive ourselves.

We all need cultural dexterity and empathy to effectively communicate across differences. A program on stereotyping, microinequities, unconscious bias and microaffirmations should address these issues head on. If not, we will continue to offend, and in many cases, those offended walk away angry or upset and ending the relationship.