Being employed in a setting that promotes diversity is one of the biggest benefits one can experience. I realized this firsthand, as I moved from traditionally small companies to larger organizations throughout my career. Although you may not realize it, interacting with different groups provides an advantage in helping you to develop an appreciation of different cultures and also experience new things as a result. Such exposure can also help you relate to others (co-workers, supervisors, customers, associates, etc.) and aid in instances such this – writing a blog to complete an assignment. As I share my story with you, I encourage you to think of your own environments and see how it has enriched your cultural experience.
Ehtesham was a very different type of fellow to me at 21-years-old. Although I grew up in the heart of Washington, D.C., during this time, the area did not offer diversity as you now see it. “Shawn” as I affectionately called him, was Pakistani and just moved to America about a year before starting employment with my new company. Since it was a small business, there wasn’t much diversity until he walked through the doors. Being naturally curious, I wanted to know more about him as I observed him eating different foods and exhibiting different attitudes that were a bit foreign to me. While I would not have considered myself closedminded, my interaction with Shawn showed me how guarded I was. For example, he offered a chicken samosa to me as a kind gesture and a form of friendship, since I didn’t know what it was, I was uneasy taking it. I did not want to try anything new as I was fearful for whatever reason. However, I eventually tried one (a few months later) and fell in love with the tasty meat pastry. This extension of friendship, actually made me try other things and I am now more willing to see if I like or dislike by testing it first.
Trying new cuisines was just the beginning. The real learning experience occurred when I begin viewing family interactions – it was then that I saw a different world from what I have come to know. As we sat around the table eating dinner one day, the topic of marriage arose and Shawn asked me when will my parents select my husband. I thought to myself, what kind of question is this? My parents picking my husband?! With a raised eyebrow, I responded that “I will choose the man I marry after we fall in love.” Being around Shawn for a while during this time, I understood when his mother asked in Urdu why my parents weren’t arranging my marriage. I explained that we usually choose our own husbands and it is an individual choice. His mother seemed stumped by this, as well as the rest of the family, as they could not understand why we would do such a thing. I then asked Shawn when he will marry and he stated that his parents will choose his bride since that decision will impact his family – “it’s an alliance.” Now I sat there stumped and didn’t know how to recover from the discussion.
Oyserman and Lee, along with Triandis (as cited in Schneider et al., 2012) describe such interactions as being the basis of individualism and collectivism. With America being an individualized culture, many of the decisions we make will be based on what we think is right, not a decision made collectively. As the authors note, an “idiocentric” makes decisions on their own despite what others may think or say (Schneider et al., 2012, p. 326). Conversely, an “allocentric” person makes decisions based on the best interests of the group (Schneider et al., 2012, p. 326) which in Shawn’s case would consider his family. Their values and structure did not change simply because they came to America, rather they traveled with them and the transition to the United States afford the family an opportunity to amass wealth – not change family traditions.
There were many other moments that I learned about the Pakistani culture from Shawn and I have taken the opportunity to do the same with others and their respective cultures in new environments. So now as I sit here typing this blog, I can reflect on the rich experiences that have followed me throughout both my professional and academic career. It’s not always easy to break out of your comfort zone, but I guarantee once you do, you will enjoy what you learn along the way.
Schneider, F., Gruman, J., & Coutts, L. (Eds.). (2012). Applied social psychology: understanding and addressing social and practical problems (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.