How to improve cross-cultural communication
As a Black woman living in the Pacific Northwest, I spend a lot of my time contemplating how much my different identities affect people's communication with me. Like any other person of color who often finds themself as the only one in groups of many, having discussions around equity, specifically racial equity, can be challenging. Sometimes, that situation can be the room looking at you to be the provider of all equitable solutions. In other cases, it's the marginalization of the equity issues at hand, because no one else can identify with those equity issues quite like you. Much of these difficult experiences are the result of communication and cultural misunderstanding. As a society, we can only move past these cross-cultural communication breakdowns if we directly address the problem and take thoughtful actions to improve how we speak with each other.
When the topic of race comes up in just about any conversation, a lot of non-Black people stumble and fumble their words, many reluctant to even say the word, Black. What is so challenging about stating the obvious? This is often what I think to myself in these situations, as I likely have had no issue identifying them as being white, or non-Black. What is so intimidating about these cross-cultural racial conversations?
To begin to answer some of my own questions I considered a few factors: audience, location, and communication styles.
First, it is crucial when having critical, cross-cultural conversations that one considers their audience. Is what you are about to say going to resonate with that individual or cause the individual to feel defensive?
The most effective cross-cultural conversations I've been part of began with a quick acknowledgment regarding my audience, as well as my delivery. Being in predominantly white spaces for most of my life has given me the opportunity to perfect reflective communication, or the ability to cause others to pause and reflect while in conversation.
Taking a page from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an effective communicator uses experiences and identities with which the audience can easily identify. Carrying this framework into daily conversations will ensure you are making a genuine effort to create cross-cultural connections.
The second factor I consider is my location. Is it me or the Pacific Northwest? What about being in the Pacific Northwest contributes to this difficulty in having critical conversations?
Rated one of the rainiest places in the United States, the Pacific Northwest is home to lush green landscapes, thick forestry and white fragility. In addition to the dense forestry and practically year-round rainfall, the Pacific Northwest is also home to some of the most passively defensive communication styles in the country. While folks may not hang Confederate flags in front of their homes or proudly display signs of white nationalism, accepted overt norms (such as referring to Lake Oswego as "Lake No Negro" due to the fact Lake Oswego has a less than 2% Black population or referring to Hillsboro as "Hillsburrito" due to its large Latino demographic) suggests that this region of the country may not be any less racist than others. In addition to overt norms, there is historical erasure of the brown and Black communities in Oregon's history.
The last factor I have to consider is communication style. Considering the passivity in communication, the often difficult, critical conversations don't organically (or effectively) occur in the Pacific Northwest. Most of these conversations arise from crises. This reactionary dialogue contributes to a large part of the cultural disconnect as well.
For the Pacific Northwest, it's crucial as a community that we step out of these spaces of reactivity and defensiveness. Instead of waiting for the communication breakdown to occur, as a community, people should sit in spaces of mindfulness that could prevent having defensive, reactive, and guilt-ridden conversations. Effective change has no place for guilt or defensiveness, only acceptance, and consideration.
Camryn Leland is a fourth-year student at the University of Oregon. She is currently working on bachelors of arts in political science and planning, public policy and management. She graduated from LOHS in 2017. In addition to being a student, Camryn works in the affordable housing community in Eugene, specializing in working with local and federal partners to assist in the houseless crisis.
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