Human Connection Through the Lens of Cultural Competence

by Joanne DeMark | May 2007

"The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference."
Audré Lorde, 1978

IN THE OCTOBER AND NOVEMBER 2006 Matrix Leadership Institute E-zine articles, Amina Knowlan talked about cultivating a ground of health in group formation (Cultivating a Ground of Health: The Wine of Ordinary Human Connection), and how this ground of health is fostered in group formation through the specific use of person-to-person communication witnessed in the open by group members (Opening the Channels; Weaving the Web: Forming a Matrix of Person-to-Person Communication In the Eyes and Ears of the Group). The opening phase of group formation is a very opportune time for setting the course for the subsequent unfolding of group members’ rich heritages and cultures. Or it can be the start towards a normative, unaware containment or restraint that creates unnecessary hurts by later phases. Like most group discord, but especially with cultural conflict, the sources of miscommunication later are most often rooted in failed intercultural communication early on.

I am speaking specifically about how we get along together, across economic status, interracially, across our ethnicities, those born in the U.S. and those not, regionally, intergenerationally, across gender and gender expression, able-bodied or not, our various sexual identities, across faith traditions or spiritual and secular, and so on. We only have to look at recent events to tell us that communication difficulties, discord, and even violence that occur in the present, across cultures, are underpinned by deep-rooted errors of simple communication, connection, and actions based on misinformation which preceded these events. I am offering a couple of general guidelines for this person-to-person communication in the opening stage of a group, organization or community that can assist newly forming groups to avoid later cultural competence pitfalls.

Guideline One, in the pursuit of the early conversations in matrix groups where we follow our ordinary curiosities about one another, it is important to remember that my ordinary and your ordinary may be quite different. We each need to question our ordinary.

One way of thinking about this, especially in cross-cultural communication, is that to find out what is ordinary for you, I may even need to take a step back from the usual questions for me like those about jobs, and dining out, and family, and ask you something more basic: What is ordinary for you, and where is the liveliness in it?

The chronically under-employed person has a lot to say about the world of work, but it isn’t in response to the question, “What do you do?” – a question I’ve asked thousands of times! A person with a hidden disability for whom dining out is a life-threatening adventure won’t care to talk about new restaurants, but might like to tell you about an internet hobby. A gay man locked out of the marriage franchise cannot easily address “Have you been married?” and “Do you have kids?” These are much more complex questions outside heterosexuality, and often even within heterosexuality.

Nothing is so satisfying as asking someone, What in your day gives you joy?, and being surprised by the most unexpected answers for what is ordinary for someone else, and where the sources of satisfaction for that person are! This means we build a ground of health by exploring the aliveness of someone else’s daily life, just getting to know that person, while we make no cultural assumptions from a mainstream understanding of things. Brilliant!

Guideline Two is about how we approach conversation with those who are not well-represented in our circles, those traditionally marginalized in dominant culture. I’ve watched repeatedly in groups (social, political, matrix, work unit, church, community, etc.), when the dominant demographic in the room are the first several speakers in a group. Sometimes those traditionally categorized the other are the last to be engaged in the conversations in groups. If you have the dominant identity for the membership in a group, i.e. your demographics are the most frequently occurring, be mindful about whether you and other members of your group are the only ones speaking.

Among multicultural trainers there is a ground rule for this called “Step Up, Step Back”. At the start of the group, this is a particularly good time to see that those who are out-numbered don’t have to wait for the majority group to have the conversations first.

Conversely, I have also witnessed when the person whose identity is not well-represented in the group becomes the person that everyone wants to talk to first. What ensues is a barrage of curious questions, appearing to be what we in matrix work are recommending. Yet these “curious” questions seem more in place to satisfy a lack of cultural exposure that the questioner has with a different cultural group, and suddenly the person being asked becomes representative for all members of that person’s group.

As a person who has had this happen to me, I can say it is exhausting to answer for my self, my group, and my group’s culture and practices. I have felt like I was helping someone with a lack of cross-cultural experience, and I wished that the person would go spend time in my groups, or read novels by my people, or google search the exact same questions the person is asking me. Wow, then the person would experience the sheer joy and overwhelm of a rich bounty of resources out there about me and my people.

It’s good not to expect the underrepresented person to again be a cultural and educational guide. When that person is already knowledgeable in her or his culture and also in dominant culture, that person has already had to do twice the learning. Minimally, it is useful if you negotiate the person’s willingness to teach you as well.

What we mean in matrix groups about following your curiosity is to do so in a culturally sensitive way—this builds the ground of health. Notice whether your questions are more for your curiosity for you, or for a curiosity that will also serve the person to whom you are asking those questions during the early stages of group formation. This better serves building the ground of health.

Milton Bennett began instructing groups in the late seventies: Treat people as you would like to be treated yourself – that’s the golden rule. But better is to treat other people the way they want to be treated—that’s the platinum rule.(1)

© Joanne DeMark and Matrix Leadership Institute, 2007. All rights reserved.
(1)Bennett, M. J. “Overcoming the Golden Rule: Sympathy and Empathy.” Communication Yearbook 3. Ed. D.Nimmo. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1979. Reprinted in Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication. Ed. M.J. Bennett. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1998.


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