Don’t Be Afraid to Ask About Differences

Diversity scares many people. They are too afraid to ask questions about differences, such as a person's culture or background. They may be worried about appearing nosy or patronizing, or are downright terrified of offending colleagues.

Asking about differences is fine. In fact, it is an excellent way to learn about the diversity around you, to communicate respect for others and to show you are interested in your colleagues and employees. The trick is to ask questions in the right way and at the right time. Here are some of the most important things to remember.

Be Respectful

Make certain your wording is respectful. If you want, for example, to learn about someone's ethnicity or national origin, don't say, "What are you?" It is hard to pinpoint just what makes this question so potentially offensive, but it certainly is not the way to approach the delicate subject of ethnicity or race. Far better options would be something like, "What is your background?" or "Where were you born?" Even to say, "Where are you from?" could create embarrassment if the colleague has an accent but has lived most of her life in New York. Her innocent reply, "New York," would then put you in the awkward position of having to clarify your question.

Avoid Embarrassment

Do not ask about a person's background immediately after a misunderstanding or error has occurred in the workplace. Let's assume you notice that an employee has made a mistake, and he admits he did not understand what was expected. Although it is reasonable to eventually inquire why he did not ask questions — and it may have had something to do with culture — it would be inappropriate to ask at the moment when he would be most likely to feel embarrassed and defensive. To do so might give the false impression that you assume the error is related to some deficiency in cultural background.

Explain Interest

Lastly, when you ask about someone's background, explain why you are interested and avoid a patronizing tone. Unfortunately, some people have had bad experiences being questioned about their backgrounds by those who didn't really care. Make it clear that you want to get to know the person better and you are curious about different cultures and varied life experiences. If you are sincere, your inquiry will be welcome and the question will serve to strengthen your relationship.

Our excessive reliance on politically correct dialogue has unfortunately made us afraid to be open with each other. It is time we begin to reopen our conversations and learn about each other. By doing that, we will be able to discover how we can work together as a team with greater understanding and mutual respect.