The multicultural workplace

For my first years in the UK, I was in predominantly all-British workplaces. People didn’t understand why I’d left my home and my family and travelled to the other side of the world. People grew confused about why I didn’t watch and hence couldn’t talk about Eastenders (or Corrie, or Brookie) and why I didn’t have a football (soccer) team. In some places, apart from work, all I could talk about with Brits was the weather. Thankfully in Britain those weather conversations can fill a lot of space.

But when I started work in my current place of employment it was different. There were some British people but the majority of employees were foreign, and non-native English speakers at that. They didn’t ask about why you would leave home to work somewhere else – they were doing it too. And they didn’t watch Eastenders either. Here, amongst all the foreigners, I finally felt at home.

Working in a multicultural environment, I have learnt a lot of new things that I would never have learnt in an all-British workplace:

  • Never seat a single person at the corner of the table; it means they will never get married.
  • In the Kyrgyz Republic, it was traditional for cemeteries to be made beside a road. As the Kyrgyz people were historically nomadic, they bury their dead as near to a place of travel as possible so they could still be near travel even if they couldn’t do it themselves.
  • A remarkable number of people from different countries watched the TV Show Skippy the Bush Kangaroo in their childhood, including people who grew up in communist countries in Eastern Europe. They can all sing the theme tune too, but with different words to the ones I know.
  • When you do something for the first time you have to make a wish. When my colleague brought her new baby in for a visit and he was passed around for hugs and cuddles, colleagues were loath to release him to the next person until they had made their wish.
  • In Ghana, one of the names often given to babies indicates the day of the week they were born. Kofi Annan? He was born on a Friday.
  • Many Christian Europeans celebrate not only their birthday but also their name day – the feast day of the saint they were named for.

I have also learned a thing or two about different languages:

  • Russian language doesn’t really have a word for “is”. That’s why some Russian speakers come across as rude and abrupt in English.
  • The French word for “cell” in a spreadsheet is the same as the word for prison cell. Much as it is in English. But I had never made this connection before and now whenever I open a spreadsheet I see lots of little prisons for numbers.
  • Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday in French. It’s the day when you would get rid of all the rich (fat) things from your cupboard before you start fasting for Lent. I learnt French at school but never made this connection before.
  • Having learned the correct greeting for Ramadan is Ramadan Kareem (Blessed Ramadan), I realised the name Kareem (or Karim) means Blessed. I’ve come to realise that a lot of Arabic names have literal meanings. I have also worked with Wish, Loyal, Exalted and Wise.

One thing I have not got used to in my multicultural workspace is kissing. Not that I object to people kissing in greeting (or brushing cheeks in a kind of kiss approximation), even in the work place. No, I’ve adjusted to that. What I haven’t got used to is how well you need to know someone to move from handshakes to kissing, and how many times you kiss. Brits who kiss (few – Britain is generally it a kissing culture) will kiss once only. But for other Europeans (and not all Europeans are kissers) you are opening up a two vs. three issue and are likely to smack heads with someone if you are pulling away after two and they are going for three.

But these niggles are small, and I really love learning new things about other countries, recognising feast days (and fast days), and building small links with other places, other countries, other cultures.

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