Diversity Compressed

Discover the Roots of Cultural Awareness

Recently, clothing retailer H&M was widely criticized for an online advertisement that featured an African American boy modeling a sweatshirt reading “Coolest monkey in the jungle.”

The company responded by acknowledging that the ad was inappropriate, apologized and immediately took the ad down. The question is: how does a multi-million dollar clothing company fail to recognize such blatant cultural insensitivity?  While it was most likely an error in judgment, shouldn’t someone have had the cultural awareness to say: “let’s not run this?”

In today’s business environment, having cultural awareness is critical to not only understanding our customers, but working effectively with global partners and suppliers, and engaging a multi-cultural workforce in our home country. Global mindset is not merely something that’s “nice to have,” it is a critical factor in your success as a leader.

So, how do you develop your cultural awareness? Let me share a bit about my background and how I developed mine.


Growing Up in Brooklyn

I developed cultural awareness not by attending a seminar, webinar or workshop. I developed it by growing up surrounded by cultural diversity in Brooklyn, New York.

For those of you who are less familiar with New York City’s most populated borough, Brooklyn has historically been home to millions of immigrants, with an ethnic mix reflecting the ongoing immigration patterns of the city. It was, and to an extent still is, a melting pot with each neighborhood having its own distinct flavor.

When I was a young boy in the 1960s and 70s, my neighborhood, Bay Ridge, consisted mostly of Irish, Italian and German families. While this may not sound very diverse, since we all had Western European ancestry, the cultural differences were stark. These differences were accentuated by the fact that most of us were first or second generation Americans and ties to our ancestral roots were strong. For example, all of my grandparents were born in Italy and my home reflected values and norms that, in many ways, felt more European than American.

As a keen young observer, I noticed all sorts of differences between my home and the homes of my friends. For example, in my home, we had European-style furniture and a plastic slipcover over the couch to protect it from getting dirty (I sheepishly admit this).  In contrast, the homes of my Irish friends were more down to earth, comfortable places where kids could be kids. I also noticed that unlike the Italian households that had a lot of ornate furnishings, the Irish moms all seemed to collect Hummel figurines. I never quite got the attraction, but I understand some of those figurines are quite valuable today.

In addition to décor, I saw cultural differences reflected in other families’ values, food, music and social life. I am proud to be of Italian descent and am so grateful that I grew up on authentic Italian food.  At the same time, however, I’m a wannabe Irishman whose life-long friends from high school are all of Irish descent. I love nothing more than gathering at a crowded Irish pub that has a band playing good Irish music. I’m also a big fan of Greek pastries which were introduced to me by the one Greek family on our block.

It was from my experiences in these different homes, and from playing with the kids in this diverse neighborhood, that I had the opportunity to learn about cultural differences. Without a conscious effort, I naturally developed the mindset and behaviors that global leaders need to embrace – demonstrate curiosity, make observations, ask questions and learn.  This appreciation for cultural differences helped me forge many friendships, not only in my old neighborhood, but around the world as a business leader.

Having a Global Mindset Fosters Relationships 

Let me share an example of how demonstrating curiosity and showing respect for other cultures can help forge relationships in business.

Earlier in my career, I was a commercial banker working on the privatization of the electric power sector in Venezuela. I worked with an American colleague who was completely disinterested in the culture of our hosts. He would go down there, speaking no Spanish whatsoever, and tell our Venezuelan colleagues how they should run their business. His condescending, authoritative approach was viewed as disrespectful, and they totally rejected him. Meanwhile, I leveraged my high school Spanish and spoke to them in their native language. I demonstrated genuine interest in their culture by asking a lot of questions, trying new foods and being open to new experiences. By demonstrating respect for their language and having a genuine interest in their culture, they embraced me. I was invited to people’s homes, met their families and made friends for life.

So, Now What?

I was able to develop cultural awareness because I was surrounded by it from the earliest age. However, if you didn’t grow up in Brooklyn or another very diverse community, no worries. In my next blog, I will introduce the necessary tools to develop not only cultural awareness, but a global mindset that will help you communicate, do business with, and influence people who are unlike you. Stay tuned!

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