The Golden Rule

I just returned from another visit to The Aspen Institute. It’s a place where I am intellectually challenged, inspired and surrounded by people from other cultures. This was my third visit and each visit, I am always impressed by the number of people from across the world who embrace each other.

As advocates and movement makers, we communicate all the time with people of other cultures. Not only is the US one of the most culturally diverse places in the world, but it’s home to dozens, if not hundreds, of sub-cultures. As movement builders, it’s our job to build bridges to those cultures whether it’s a one-on-one communication or one to a larger group. Your movement’s strength depends on how well it can hear and be heard by the diverse communities it seeks to serve.

No Assumptions

Cross-cultural communication is simpler than it sounds. How many times growing up were you reminded of the Golden Rule: treat others as you want to be treated? That, Movement Makers, is the key to effective cross-cultural communication, but with a twist. With cross-cultural communication, it’s all about treating others as they want to be treated.

Let’s unpack that. Treating others as they want to be treated means thinking about what the world looks like from the other person or group’s perspective. What keeps them up at night? What are their cultural sensitivities? If you don’t know the answer to those questions, then take the time to find out. Simply ask and listen. You’ll be surprised by how much trust can be built through these simple acts.

Also, don’t make assumptions. We can all identify with how terrible it is to be on the receiving end of other people’s assumptions. Don’t assume based on how someone looks at what culture they identify with or how they might think or feel about an issue. It means not assuming people are familiar with slang and jargon. I think it’s really easy in the nonprofit world, for example, for us to assume people get what we do and that they’ll have the same frame of reference as us.  That’s a recipe for disaster, right there.

Actions Matter

And remember that communication is not just about the verbal. It’s in our body language and our actions. I want to tell you a story about how loudly actions speak, Movement Maker Tribe. I was invited to be part of a very prestigious board in Austin. I went to the first meeting, and it was great. The second one, however, was the complete opposite. My friends weren’t there. I arrived early, and as other people arrived, no one sat at my table. I soon realized that I was the only African-American person at the meeting. Later, this same organization began talking about wanting to be more diverse but they never included me in any of those conversations. Now, mind you, this organization only serves under-served communities, and in an email solicitation I got from them, there was not a single photo of anyone of color or any of the people they serve.  So that organization communicated to me loud and clear that they didn’t value difference, they didn’t want diversity. What they truly wanted was a semblance of diversity, but not true inclusion. No one ever verbalized any of that to me, but their actions made it loud and clear. Every time you’re putting together a seating chart, organizing a room, thinking about who you’ll invite to an event, designing a flyer, you are communicating who you are and what you stand for. Your actions speak for you.

And don’t be afraid to make mistakes. If you do, just acknowledge it. Just like asking questions and listening, acknowledging you made a mistake and apologizing go a long way. Had the organization I just told you about apologized and asked me questions about my experience, I bet I would have stayed on. They would have built a bridge. And be authentic. These days, way too many apologies from public figures who mess up ring hollow Don’t sugar coat it or make an apology that’s really a cop-out. Just be real and upfront. Be you, Movement Maker.

Movement Maker’s Golden Rules

So, Movement Maker Tribe, here are my golden rules for cross-cultural communication.

1)    Treat others as they want to be treated.

2)    Listen and ask questions.

3)    Don’t make assumptions.

4)    Remember that actions speak (sometimes louder than words).

5)    If you make a mistake, apologize in a way that’s sincerely you.

If you have more tips, or examples of these golden rules in action, I’d love to hear them. You can always find me on Instagram or Facebook, #Firestarters. And I can’t wait to see your cross-cultural movements thrive!


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