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Cross-cultural Competence in South Africa

By Devan Moonsamy

Cross-cultural competence involves the knowledge, skills, and motivation to adapt to diverse interactions. It is a major way in which we can contribute to intercultural cooperation. Some aspects of our behaviour are critical in terms of the values of a culture. However, certain key abilities and attitudes enable us to adapt to any culture effectively.

Cross-cultural competency is among the most important skills for the future workforce, according to the Institute for the Future, a global research body based in California. Tim Rettig, author on interpersonal struggle and success, explains, ‘Research has long shown that diversity of thought increases creativity and, with it, the innovation potential of both teams and corporations.’

In future and now, organisations are compelled to work more with people and partners from faraway places. This does not mean emailing and Skyping with them. No, they are right there in the office with us on a daily basis. Sometimes we are the cultural outsider, and we need to adapt while trying not to be too sensitive to what would be inappropriate back home. We need to be able to explain our views as well, allowing others to understand our needs better.

Benign terms?

Conflict will happen in cross-cultural encounters. In itself, it may not be such a major problem, provided it leads to mutual understanding. As an example of how cross-cultural competency doesn’t happen, consider the following: An overseas client visits the workplace. They know little about SA. In chatting with a company employee, they hear that their accent is distinct, and ask, ‘Are you a Boer?’

The employee is indeed Afrikaans, but they find the term Boer offensive. Some Afrikaans people do not mind the term, but others feel that it has been used in a derogatory way. The employee becomes angry and says, ‘You can’t speak to me like that!’ The visitor is taken aback and feels insulted and confused.

In such a case where the person knows little about our complex history, and even in cases where a South African uses a term such as Boer, is it necessary to become angry and retaliate? The person may think that the term is an acknowledgement of a proud heritage, for example, as in the case of terms such as African American as used by some in the US.

Not everyone knows that the term has become offensive to some Afrikaans people because it has been used in slogans and songs such as ‘Kill the Boer’, as started in 1993 by Peter Mokaba, president of the ANC Youth League at the time. Indeed, if we are not involved in such behaviour and threats, we may not know of their existence.

Terms such as jeez, girly or my girl, monkey, umlungu and Dutchman can be offensive, depending on the circumstances in which they are used. Avoiding the use of slang and colloquial language in the workplace is thus a safe option. We also want to avoid being overly familiar with our colleagues, especially if we don’t know them well. We don’t know how some words can hurt others, even if they have no negative meaning to us.

We should thus show cultural competency by confining our conversation to terms that are neutral and commonly accepted as referring to specific objects and ideas relevant to the working environment. We should avoid ambiguous or potentially controversial topics. It is also advisable to avoid terms which we are not familiar with.

Conflict transformation can still be achieved in problem cases if employees are willing to learn, listen and reconcile. Team members need time to reflect on each other’s’ different points of view, and ultimately find a way to create synergy and a novel solution to a problem.

Ways to achieve cross-cultural competency

Tim Rettig says that problems can be curbed when team members display cross-cultural competency. He suggests a number of ways, and some are stated below.

  • Placing oneself in the position of the other person and striving to see from their perspective.
  • Understanding the different values, beliefs and assumptions of the other side.
  • Listening carefully from a neutral stance with a view to gaining a deep understanding of the person’s culture and personal beliefs.
  • Communicating one’s point of view effectively but kindly to the other side.
  • Working towards integration of the different perspectives in order to create a new solution to the problem.
  • Resolving conflicts in a productive way as opposed to allowing negative emotional reactions to overtake a situation and set a precedent for future interaction.

People behaving strangely

One final word to be said on this topic of cultural understanding comes from psychology. Sometimes people say and do strange or offensive things, and we think, ‘That’s odd,’ or ‘I never expected that from them.’ We may also become angry at them for this.

But at times people are so worried about not doing the wrong thing that they become preoccupied with it. This is often accompanied by intense fear. They keep thinking about this bad thing they shouldn’t do to the point where, especially when they are stressed or on ‘autopilot’ and simply trying to cope in a difficult time, they end up doing the exact thing they didn’t want to.

We jump to take offence, not realising that, for that moment in which they fell short, there were hundreds of other times when they did the right thing and mastered their prejudices and fears.

It is thus important to consider whether a person has shown a pattern of discriminatory behaviour towards other cultures, genders, races etc. Or have they not rather made a mistake which should be forgiven? No one can say they are perfectly unbiased and perfectly behaved. If there is a pattern of behaviour, however, combined with an unapologetic attitude, then the person certainly deserves discipline.

If we are looking at an isolated case, and the person shows genuine remorse, it can be an excellent opportunity to implement conflict transformation and teach cross-cultural competency. We thereby build more closely-knit cooperative teams who better understand one another, have increased respect for one another, and have learnt to weather storms together and come out united.

Dynamic Public Speaking

By Devan Moonsamy

A dynamic public speaker is someone who can deliver a talk or lead a discussion successfully according to the needs of the context and the audience. It doesn’t mean that you need to put on a show or pretend to be someone you are not. Fear of public speaking is the most common phobia that people have.

How do we overcome this fear? It was something I needed to do, and which many people have done already. You too can overcome your fear of speaking in front of groups of people. This phobia is not abnormal. Speaking in front of others is daunting because we feel they are judging us. But this can be used to our advantage. If we do well in our speech or discussion, we will make a major positive impression on the audience and promote us in our career.

To deliver a dynamic presentation, there are three broad categories of aspects to master.

The body: Focus on slowing your breathing and taking deeper, more full breaths. Breath management is key to helping you stay calm and speak well. Experts also say that we need to control nervousness, not eliminate it. Nervousness is an ally if we redirect it. It gives us an extra spurt of adrenaline that we need to give us the edge in public speaking. The secret is in learning how to control it, not trying to get rid of it because that is a losing game.

Use diaphragmatic breathing and avoid upper chest breathing. This helps amplify your voice. You don’t have to open your mouth too wide. Rather use a medium closed mouth which creates resonance and medium volume which is preferable. There is no need to shout or raise your voice too much; it puts people off.

If you are using a microphone, don’t speak too close to it. Hold it at a 45° angle at least 10cm from your mouth. Remember that people’s ears can be hurt if you speak too loud. If you speak too close to the microphone, it creates a ‘boom’ noise and the sound engineer will have to reduce the volume considerably or it will hurt the audiences’ ears. In such cases what you are saying will be garbled.

The mind: You must plan your speech thoroughly. Write it down in as much detail as you need it to be. Some actually do well with undetailed notes, others need more detailed notes, and that is fine. It may help to write out the overall structure and memorise that. Then write down a few key phrases which you really want to say in specific words in a specific way, and which you can even read out to the audience.

Practice and know your topic very well. Failure to practice will lead to major problems during delivery. Nancy Daniels, who writes a lot about public speaking, says that even if it means staying up all night, your preparation should be thorough. She says that ‘Your adrenaline will get you through it and you can crash later.’

I would advocate for a middle road. Practice as thoroughly as possible, even into the night, but you know your body and how much sleep you need. For some, being less prepared is not as much a problem as being exhausted.

Reading through your speech only is insufficient. Nancy Daniels says, ‘Your audience is there to hear you speak to them. If you plan to read it, why not copy it, pass it out, and then everyone can go home!’ You must practice several times over until you can move from one sentence or idea to the next without checking your notes each time.

The social: Nancy Daniels says that the secret is ‘the ability to treat your audience just as if you were having a conversation in your living room… we think we should be something or someone we’re not. I want you to be you. The best speakers are those who are themselves.’

This sounds great, but it’s very hard when you are nervous, under pressure to perform, or your thoughts are scattered. To connect with your audience in an interpersonal way, you first must master the two categories discussed above. Once you have control of your breath and body, and if you know what you are going to say in depth, you are then ready to engage with people in a way that ensures they get your message across successfully and in the way you intended to.

To master the social or interpersonal aspects of your speech, there are a few critical but very simple things to do. These are:

  • Make eye contact with your audience from time to time, as appropriate. Don’t speak only to certain people, but give general attention across the room, focussing on different groups or even single people for short periods.
  • Nancy Daniels says, ‘You will discover that you will feel more comfortable if you zoom in on your smilers.’ This is especially helpful if it’s a tough audience. In such cases look and speak to those people who are showing positive reactions. Other people might be tired, distracted or even not interested in what you are saying. You want to connect with everyone and give everyone some of your attention.
  • You will make mistakes, so just recollect your thoughts and keep going. If you are making a lot of mistakes, however, it is due to lack of preparation and practice.
  • Add some emotion or feeling. Change your voice from time to time to suit your topic. Don’t use a monotone voice or a repetitive tone. Also, use appropriate and varied facial expressions and body language. ‘Color is not only heard in the voice, but it is also seen in your facial expression as well as your body language,’ Nancy Daniels explains.
  • It is difficult to show appropriate emotions if you are unprepared and your nervous energy is uncontrolled. Confidence and the ability to show your personality and emotions will blossom like flowers if planted in a well-tended garden of preparation and practice. Nancy Daniels says, ‘Learning to control your nervousness means allowing yourself to be expressive.’
  • Have a test run in front of someone who can give you useful feedback. Ask them to offer advice on what would make the speech better. For example, maybe you haven’t explained a certain point as clearly as necessary. Practising with someone can help identify these problems.

If you are challenged, even intimidated, by a cold audience, continue trying to speak to them, not at them, and see if they don’t thaw a bit. Being well prepared helps tremendously in such cases because you can focus on your topic and making a good delivery. Even if the audience reactions are disappointing, they cannot fault your delivery. You will know exactly what to do, keeping your talk flowing from one point to another, and not getting stuck. This gives you a chance to create a good impression, even if the audience is frigid.

Conflict Management Using Game Theory 

By Devan Moonsamy

Game theory was developed by John Nash and other mathematicians and strategists to help deal with complex problems, initially the nuclear standoff between Russia and the US which threatened everyone, not only these two nations.

Game theory is not a simple theory, it is quite complex, but it does help predict the best way forward with more accuracy. It has been successfully applied in business, negotiation and economic contexts.

Contrary to its name, it does not mainly deal with recreational activities, but rather with more serious events with greater consequences. It is not one theory, but a collection of theories based on research in all manner of contexts. In our everyday relationships, the theory has a few very helpful things to teach us. Let’s examine them.

Firstly, through running simulations of all kinds of situations, and taking into account that we cannot fully predict the reactions of other players, it was found that the best first move to make in any situation – the one most likely to succeed – is simply to cooperate.

If we want to achieve success in our relationships, we should cooperate. It may not always lead to a win-win outcome initially. Occasionally it will have no positive effect because the other party may refuse to cooperate and there is nothing we can do to dissuade them. Some people only engage with others in order to compete. They play only to win (to be seen as better than everyone else in some way); they don’t play to play (such as enjoying one’s work, cooperating, and achieving team goals).

Nevertheless, cooperating upfront usually creates the conditions for achieving peace, and helps curb resentment and further tension. Game theory also shows that fairness begets fairness.

There may be times when we must refuse to cooperate, such as when someone tries to get us to do something illegal or that would injure someone. We would need to be firm and state our reasons for not complying. We can, however, show a spirit of cooperation despite refusing to go along with their wishes. We can do so by offering an alternative to them, and offering to assist them in an ethical/legal manner if possible.

For example, a coworker might want us to help them steal from the company. Perhaps they are having a hard time financially, or perhaps it is greed. Whatever the cause, we can encourage them not to steal because it could lead to them losing their job and going to jail. In the long term, they will lose rather than gain, including through guilt and sleepless nights.

Offer an alternative: Why not ask the company for a raise to help with increasing expenses; ask for an interest-free loan from the company, friend or relative to see you through a tough time; or go to the bank to apply for credit? It might even be time to find another position, or work towards one with a higher pay grade.

Remind them that they might gain a little in the short term by stealing, but they can gain much more by working towards long-term goals in an honest way, especially when people respect them. Do they really want to damage their relationship with you? They are putting you in a difficult position. But you will not choose them over your own career. You will not compromise the collective good because stealing decreases profit, which leads to higher costs, and hurts everyone’s chances of getting a raise.

Secondly, teams that cooperate achieve more and better results than individuals alone. Groups are able to learn how the system works and adapt their strategy faster than individuals alone. Working in groups is challenging, and conflict inevitably arises. However, working through such conflict together and not giving up on others is the best possible strategy to follow.

It is more productive to invest time in our relationships at work rather than ignoring or abusing them. While individuals may seem to benefit from acting selfishly, the benefits are limited and inevitably hurt them.

Let’s consider an example of how being uncooperative in a team is destructive. We are considering the field of biology. There are such things as ‘selfish cells’. These are in fact cancerous cells. A tumour grows when a cell is very unhealthy, but instead of dying, it gets out of control and makes endless copies of itself at the expense of the rest of the body.

The outcome of this selfishness is that the cell and its copies damage and can eventually kill the very thing that was keeping them alive. Cancerous cells are thus removed or killed off by treatments such as chemotherapy.

On the other hand, everyone benefits from cooperation and avoiding proliferating negativity. It is also interesting to note that the vast majority of cells have an autodestruct gene, meaning that they simply die out of their own if there is something wrong with them. If they are rouge cells and don’t self-destruct, the body usually gets rid of them before they can do damage.

In the end, most unhealthy cells do not last long. We may just need to be patient, wait it out, and continue to pursue happiness and cooperation in our lives and work as best we can. Eventually, most trouble-makers leave. If they are still around, seek shelter and foster good relationships in your team and co-workers.

Thirdly, assumptions about others reduce our rationality. When we make assumptions about others before getting to know them as individuals, we reduce our ability to make sound decisions. If we have negative assumptions about certain people or groups, they notice this, and they will respond usually by closing up towards us in order to protect themselves. It thus becomes difficult to communicate, build trust and achieve goals. If we behave and speak from a prejudiced stance, we can also find ourselves in a disciplinary hearing.

Game theory teaches us that we need to work and make decisions without and in spite of such negative beliefs and assumptions if we are to succeed in the workplace and in our relationships.

Racism and Sexism are ‘Offensive’… So What?

By Devan Moonsamy

Do we truly understand what racism and sexism are? Do we truly understand why it is offensive, and why it should end? The word offensive has been overused in the context of discrimination. It feels like it has a weak meaning.

What is this offence caused? We need to go deeper. Racism and sexism cause pain. That is something we seem to miss in all this mess of accusations and flaring tempers. Discrimination tells the target that they are not good enough simply because of certain physical features, but which do not fully define who they are in any case.

Certainly, our gender, race and colour do determine some things about us – and we should all be proud of the positive aspects of our heritage. However, it is extremely hurtful when these features are used as an excuse for ‘less than’ treatment.

Racism and sexism lead to anger. People want to get even, often more than even, because it is not the first time they have faced such treatment and the pain and frustration has built up inside them. It is thus a case sometimes of the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Racist or sexist remarks and acts of discrimination tell the victim that they are inferior and will never be anything other than what the racist or sexist defines them as. This is ‘offensive’, yes, but let’s forget about that word for now. Let’s focus on the fact rather that it causes immense pain, sometimes long-term or life-long distress which, while people may hide very well for a time, is no less a reality.

It damages a person’s and even an entire population’s sense of self-worth, and it oppresses them. It may force them to accept a lower position, which there is no valid reason for them to occupy, at least until they fight back and reclaim equality.

What has happened about the allegations of sexism at the African Union Commission?

Institutionalised or politically sanctioned racism and sexism are out. However, there is a subtle dimension of racism and sexism which currently exists and which we may take for granted. We can see it in the sexism problems in the AU Commission which became public last year. Women in the AU called male colleagues’ behaviour ‘professional apartheid against female employees’.

Let’s cut through some of the jargon there. In just one statement, one of the alleged misogynists at the AU said to his new superior, a woman, ‘I’m still in charge here.’ So that’s offensive of course. But so what? What does that mean?

It means that the only reason this woman – a professional who had already gone far by making it into a senior position at the AU Commission – made it was because men allowed her there. Not

because she earned it, not because she deserves it, or because she has important work to do. Only because men allowed it, and whatever she thinks she has to contribute, that’s not welcome.

The same is true of people of colour in many cases whereby whites continue to have a feeling of superiority or patronising view. It is as if they think, ‘We let you into the organisation because the government says we must, and we get benefits from B-BBEE compliance, but don’t think you are going to run the show’. This is even more so for black women striving to advance in their careers.

The AU Commissioner Smail Chergui was accused of abusing his power by preventing female candidates from progressing into senior positions. Officials from an AU HR department describe this situation as ‘poisonous’ and say in an internal memo that Chergui changed shortlists for job positions to suit a sexist agenda. The complaints made by the women were addressed to AU Chairperson Moussa Faki. Faki’s response hit the nail on the head: ‘… during my appointment, we’ve appointed more women than men into important positions and this was not because I was doing women a favour but because of their natural abilities and the important roles they perform in society. It was natural to appoint them. I’m committed to getting rid of gender discrimination and sanctions will be imposed on anybody or person we find discriminating against women.’

Faki thus identifies a major concern in the fight for women’s equality. Some women are made to feel that they are being done a ‘favour’ rather than having earned a position or right. It is thus critical for women to know and feel that they truly are wanted and needed in whatever position they hold. The same is true of people of colour and other marginalised groups.

Similar to the race discrimination problem in South African companies, will it be the case of, ‘Only when we are ready to let you in,’ for African women in politics, ‘And even then, you will only be as important as we let you be’? The AU conducted an investigation and made the report public late last year. Eighty-eight individuals came forward with information and to share their views on the various cases of concern. The following are some of the report’s key findings:

* Sexual harassment exists in the Commission. Interviewed AU staff almost unanimously confirmed this. Sexual harassment is largely perpetrated by supervisors over female employees. ‘According to interviewees, the young women are exploited for sex in exchange for jobs.’

* Individuals most vulnerable are female short-term staff, youth volunteers and interns.

* Cases go unreported because it would cause further harm to the victim.

* The absence of an official AU Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Policy compounds the problem. The AU report admits that without a dedicated, effective redress and protection mechanism for victims or whistle-blowers, women are left vulnerable in the AU.

* Both male and female superiors were reported to harass and bully subordinates.

The AU has proposed a number of means to remedy these problems, as detailed in their report. What is particularly noteworthy is that, despite serious accusations against Commissioner Chergui, he remains exactly where he was in the AU when the news broke almost a year ago. And, the investigation report does not mention him at all. Were all 37 women who signed the memo wrong about him?

More recent news in relation to Chergui has focussed on a peace deal within the Central African Republic this month, and peace talks with the DRC last month. Chergui has been critical to these developments, and perhaps his position and respect on the continent are keeping him where he is. What Chergui did or did not do seems to have been hushed up, and that certainly seems suspicious.

Is sexism a ‘necessary evil’ in Africa… for now?

Are men like Chergui ‘needed’ in political office, and thus tolerated despite sexism? The writer could find no official evidence or investigation by the AU about the claims against Chergui specifically. He is still an influential leader, and perhaps he needs to be male. Otherwise, will other (mostly male) African leaders take him seriously?

Achieving peace is certainly a critical goal in war-torn African nations like the DRC where human rights abuses have been a never-ending nightmare for over 20 years. If it takes a group of powerful men to stop the brutality and save the Congolese people, gender equality may have to wait until that is finally achieved.

It is certainly not ok that political offices have to be occupied by men in order to get the job done. However, we do not operate in a vacuum and we know sexism is still rife. To achieve peace deals and conduct serious negotiations with African leaders, does one still need to be male? Change is slow, especially where power is concentrated.

While racist and sexist people in power wait until they feel like sharing, we must continue to support those who are doing good work and striving for senior positions in which they can make a difference. We must also remember to support those victims of discrimination and point out that racism and sexism are not just ‘offensive’. They cause people immense personal pain and feelings of not being good enough. They lead to isolation and frustration. This is all completely avoidable if we only treat one another with respect as equal humans with equal rights.

It is hard to get everyone on board. We know that some people in power are only paying lip service to human rights and equality. Their real views and decisions have not changed.

Devan Moonsamy is the author of Racism, Classism, Sexism, And The Other ISMs That Divide Us, available from the ICHAF Training Institute.

The book tackles contemporary issues in the South African workplace, including a variety of diversity-related challenges and how these can be addressed. It is an excellent guide for managers to harnessing diversity for success.

ICHAF offers SETA-approved training in business skills, computer use, and soft skills. Devan specialises in conflict and diversity management, and regularly conducts seminars on these issues for corporates. To book a seminar with Devan or for other training courses, please use the contact details below.

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