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Work effectively with culturally diverse clients and co-workers

Cultural misunderstandings

When you consider the many conflicts that are occurring between cultures worldwide, it is not surprising that Australian people with links to those homelands may carry and voice their views about the relative justice of each side’s cause, e.g. Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, and Serbians and Croats in former Yugoslavia.

As you read in earlier sections of this resource, Australia has attempted to manage these issues by adopting a policy of multiculturalism and encouraging tolerance, acceptance and compliance with the laws of this country.

Nevertheless, some tensions may still arise between workers and co-workers or workers and clients when old enmities surface, perhaps due to a recent crisis overseas. For example, the recent bombing of Lebanon may cause considerable dissent between Australian-born/migrant people of Jewish allegiance and Australian-born/migrant Lebanese. Fortunately the spirit of democracy, free speech and tolerance promoted in Australian society usually prevents these tensions from reaching a conflict.

If this occurs within a workplace, it is important for the worker or supervisor to check with clients or co-workers if it would be a problem for them to have someone from the other ethnic group or nation interacting with them and if so, make alternative arrangements if needed.

However, the code of conduct that guides the work of most human service professionals and paraprofessionals would expect workers and their supervisors to take the lead in trying to resolve such a situation and reach a level of conciliation, so that the service to clients never suffers.

Cultural ignorance and insensitivity

Community service and disability service workers lacking cross-cultural experience or cultural sensitivity may either over-emphasise or underestimate the influence of culture when working with CALD communities.  There is a tendency to fall into the trap of ethnocentrism by applying your behavioural standards to CALD clients or co-workers.

Lack of awareness of different societal lifestyle practices

Different countries or cultures have different lifestyle practices, due to their levels of development. For example, in some parts of the Horn of Africa, people are paid after they complete their work for the day, so that they can purchase their daily necessities.  Therefore, they have no concept of a banking system, budgeting or being paid fortnightly. This may cause confusion and misunderstanding when they work in Australia.

When you are working across cultures, the differences in lifestyle practices could cause confusion, misunderstanding, or even conflict.

Differences in cultural practice

People will not automatically discuss their differences in cultural practice, but they might become visible due to misunderstandings or conflicts regarding particular matters such as not accepting food, due to a cultural dietary practice. Therefore, it is important for you not just to focus on the issue itself but to investigate the root cause of these misunderstandings or conflicts.

Differences in perception of illness and treatment

Cross-cultural misunderstandings and conflict frequently happen when clients visit doctors or dentists during assessment, diagnosis and treatment processes. These are due to differences in the perceptions of illness and treatment.

Different perceptions also exist between workers, which may hinder teamwork.  Recognition, acknowledgement and respect for these differences are important when you are working cross-culturally.

Miscommunication and misinterpretation

One the most common causes of cross-cultural misunderstanding and conflict is miscommunication and misinterpretation of meaning between workers and CALD people.

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