2015-10-14 / Front Page

Queens Chamber Of Commerce Holds Meeting On Workplace Cultural Diversity

By Thomas Cogan
The Queens Chamber of Commerce held a meeting last week on cultural diversity in the workplace, as part of its service to educate and inform.   It was conducted by Joshua E. Bienstock, an attorney and teacher of business law at New York Institute of Technology’s school of management.  At QCC headquarters in the Bulova Center in East Elmhurst, he and a group of business and non-profit executives discussed the increasing need for diversity awareness, particularly as the workplace and the work experience become further internationalized.  Differences in behavior and what is considered the right way of going about things are often revealed when persons deal with each other, either as business negotiators or as employers and employees.  If diversity is examined and appreciated, it can lead to a better understanding of what motivates people.  Out of that, better business relations, productivity and worker morale can result.   

Bienstock and another attendee, Vincent Petraro, had personal anecdotes about awkward moments when they ran into situations diverse from their own experience.  Both occurred in Texas, where each as a lawyer had gone on business.  Bienstock said that when standing in a courtroom in Galveston, dressed as he would be in New York, he found himself in acute contrast to all those around him, who were wearing 10-gallon hats, boots and bolo ties.  It made him uneasy.  Petraro, elsewhere than Galveston but still in Texas, mildly inquired about the slow pace of the proceedings that were engaging him and the others and was criticized as being a bit pushy.  Different dress and a different pace had caught them unawares. 

Bienstock then related a noted story of a visit by American businessmen to China years ago.  On the morning when business was scheduled to commence, the Americans found themselves waiting at least an hour for their Chinese hosts to arrive.  When they did, they immediately said it was time for lunch.  Their out of sync deportment so annoyed the Americans that they complained.  The Chinese were unmoved and the meeting the Americans had traveled thousands of miles to attend collapsed.  Eventually, the Americans had to consider that while they might have held the high ground for behavior, their inability to accept their hosts’ presumptions and unwillingness to bend to them was short-sighted.   

Bienstock and Petraro were asking their listeners to consider that the traits and actions they see in people foreign to themselves, and perhaps find strange or even repellent, probably have their mirror image in their own behavior and may well strike others observing them as disagreeable.  Bienstock showed lists of complaints one group of persons will find with the behavior of those of another group, matched with the other group’s complaints.  They reveal that Americans and Chinese, say, or New Yorkers and Texans, can each bring the other up short in regard to perceived faults. 

Business negotiators travel to many places, meet many other businesspersons and try to work out different tactics and strategies for different situations.  But trying to maintain the single site that is the workplace can also entail situations that have to be worked out.  An employer can set rules, but will they affect the workforce equally and fairly?  Questions of sensitivity regarding gender, ethnicity, religious beliefs and social status continue to arise with the increasing awareness of group concerns.  Such concerns might be going unnoticed or handled ineptly in a particular workplace.  A woman at the meeting had a story about a foreign-born woman at her workplace with a name hard to pronounce.  It got pronounced every which way, by persons assuming the woman would understand how difficult it was for them.  Difficult but not impossible:  the woman ultimately expressed resentment about their unserious attitude, which amounted to making a joke of her name by not even trying to get it right.  Bienstock said that the reluctance to speak up owing to a shyness that might be part of one’s cultural upbringing should be respected, but attempts at dialogue and discussion are necessary to reveal insensitivity that might otherwise make itself known abruptly, and cause a lot of embarrassment.  A culturally insensitive environment impedes potentiality, he said.

He recommended Fisher and Ury’s Getting to Yes, a book which, while a classic of business strategy after 34 years in print, is also full of advice about consideration and sensitivity such as he was he was trying to convey.  An attendee, Ellen Foster, human resources coordinator at the AIDS Center of Queens County Inc., quoted an associate of hers who said that cultural sensitivity training might better be called “cultural humility.”  

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