Working professionally in the late 1990s in DC was tough. It was still a city which largely regarded the world as either black or white as defined by skin color alone and by politics. Culture was often invisible. The visible Latino community then was predominantly Mexican American on Capitol Hill and Central American in local communities.
Expressing my culture at work was sometimes difficult. One the one hand I wanted to blend in with the Latino community and be accepted. On the other hand, I had this feeling that I couldn’t be “too Latina” as I did my work. I struggled to make sense of my own culture in relation to these other mainstream collective cultures. I tried to simply blend in for a while but it wasn’t working.
I slowly started I started defining who I wanted to be at work.
Whatever your culture is, the most important thing you should know is that culture is constantly evolving. Growing up between Bogota and New York, I was exposed to a wide range of cultures and experiences. I didn’t associate as Latina until I left for college, where there was a strong political and social cue to define myself in a group.
For a long time I embraced this cultural construct of being Latina because I was discovering what my culture and nationality meant to me and because I feared it would be lost in what was a bifurcated city like DC. Soon as I entered the workforce I started thinking about culture and what it mean to be Latina and my perspective started to change.
What is culture anyway?
Culture is an infusion of your family habits, music, religion, foods, language, community, heritage, nationality, personality, patterns, behaviors and the list goes on. The origin of the word "culture" derives from the Latin term "colere," which means to tend to the earth and grow, or cultivation and nurture.
As you can see, culture is movable, changeable, and dynamic. No two people define it exactly alike. That is what is exciting about culture and why it belongs at work. Culture is that “chispa” or secret sauce that makes for the best workplaces, the most interesting and dynamic leaders and the most creative solutions.
We are constantly redefining who we are in relation to our history and experiences. The exciting part of culture is that we can redefine who we want to be in this world. The scary part about the dynamic nature of culture is the idea that part of who we are might be lost in the process of mixing with other cultures and communities.
The truth is only you can choose to leave aspects of your culture behind. The more knowledge you have about your culture and the culture of others, the larger your cultural canvas becomes. Culture is the gateway to building authentic relationships with others in order to better embrace a shared humanity. This helps us cultivate greater openness and understanding of diverse perspectives and creates the space for creativity and success.
Here are some tips to help you embrace culture at work.
STAY CURIOUS ABOUT COWORKERS
One of the biggest limitations we set for ourselves is spending so much time asking about other people’s job or function. Your job is just one aspect of your interests. To really get to know someone, their values, cultural experiences, we have to start by asking about where they are from and what their interests are. In Latin America and many other cultures around the world, doing business together is predicated on getting to know your potential business partners culture, family and background. Culture and background have great influence over values, creativity and perception about the world. Next time you’re hanging out with coworkers, forget about talking shop. Instead ask about their hometown, hobbies, favorite vacations or family traditions.
WEAR WHAT MAKES YOU FEEL CONFIDENT
Take time to define a style that fits your culture and helps you stand out in ways that make you feel confident. Those who stand out get noticed.
I still remember when Ida L. Castro became the first Latina Chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. I remember her gracing the stages with bright colorful suits and her edgy white spiky hair cut. The next day I ditched my boring black suits for a new look connected to my personal style and culture. If you’re not sure how to make yourself look confident, find a stylist in a major department store or online who can help you redefine your look. The more confident and comfortable you are in your own skin, the more successful you will be.
DEALING WITH MICROAGGRESSIONS
You know that moment when you’ve heard so many ridiculous things about your or someone else’s culture or race that you feel like you might bust! FYI - It’s probably not a good idea to keep these things bottled up. But you don’t want to spend the day letting others learn off your back. Instead take an open stance to avoid the work meltdown around microaggressions.
What if everyone who made an unwanted comment was desperate and thirsty for knowledge about your culture? What if you shared one small new piece of insight and knowledge about your culture with this person instead of snarky comeback? They may or may not receive what you have to share.
The open stance is in your service. You will find greater ease and relief each time you find a way to share your culture and values with others in a positive way. Doing this exercise grows your personal power and increases your visibility. The more visible you become, the more people will gravitate toward you.
Whatever you decide, take care of yourself first in each interaction and remember your culture is a seed ready to grow and transform your workplace.
Your turn: How do you celebrate your culture and the culture of others at work?
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