By Craig Storti

A fast-growing county in the far suburbs of Washington, D.C., a place once so rural it never dreamed it could be a suburb of another place, has recently begun to experience an increase in immigration from Central America. I was interviewing a county social worker there a while back, a woman who now has a new kind of client: working-class immigrants from El Salvador and Honduras.

“The families come in,” she said, “and we try to deal with their problems. A lot of the issues involve the children: malnutrition, psychological problems, sometimes drug abuse. The mothers are very concerned, but the fathers don’t say anything. How do you engage Hispanic males?” The woman was genuinely concerned. Because the problem involved children, any solution would most probably have to involve both parents, but the fathers, as she put it, “aren’t engaged.” And she couldn’t understand why.

I didn’t really know why, of course, not being familiar with the specifics. I didn’t even know if it was a cultural problem, a personal problem (maybe this woman’s manner was somehow threatening to men), or perhaps just a language problem (maybe all the wives she met with spoke better English than their husbands). But it did occur to me that perhaps the social worker was reading the situation wrong, interpreting it, that is, from an Anglo, U.S. perspective. In her world, if the father in a parent conference just sits there and says nothing, then he’s disengaged. But in the culture many of this woman’s clients come from, the very fact that the father came to the social worker’s office with his wife may suggest that he is in fact deeply concerned. He may not say much—he may not say anything—but if he’s in the room with the social worker, he’s very “engaged.”

How so? This is simplistic, but the explanation goes something like this. In many Hispanic cultures, the father is traditionally the keeper of the family honor. The reputation and good name of the family are ultimately the responsibility of the head of the household; if there are family problems, problems with the behavior of the wife or of the children, that reflects poorly on the husband/father. That there are such problems is bad enough, of course, but if the father further admits that he can’t solve the problem, which is what it means if he allows his wife to visit a social worker, that’s even worse. And if he actually accompanies his wife to meet with the social worker—to discuss a family problem with a complete stranger, to admit his inadequacy to such a person, and to a woman besides—such a man can be accused of a lot of things, perhaps, but being disengaged is definitely not one of them.

So what is the moral of this tale? Whenever we interpret behavior, whenever we decide what someone else’s actions mean, we are obliged to do so from the perspective of our own experience. But if that person, an Hispanic man in this case, comes from another culture, then your experience—gained in your culture—may not be a very reliable guide to his behavior. There’s a good chance, in short, that you may be misinterpreting some of his behavior (as he may be yours).

Fine (you’re thinking); I may be wrong about this guy. So now what do I do? The short answer, of course, is thatyou need to interpret this man’s behavior from his cultural point of view, not yours, to understand better where he is coming from, and then the path to helping him and his son will no doubt be much clearer to you. And you can get on with your job.

But let’s be honest: how are you supposed to understand where a working class, quite possibly illiterate El Salvadorian campesino is coming from? And even if you could miraculously figure that out, what about the 35 other nationalities you have in your county? Do you likewise have to figure out where Sudanese refugees, Somalian exiles, Ukrainian immigrants, Chechnyian asylum seekers, and unwed Guatemalan mothers are coming from? In a perfect world, sure; in the world we live in, good luck. And so we’re back where we started.

This is a serious and growing challenge as the U.S. becomes more culturally diverse, especially for people who work in public services, whether at the municipal, county, state, or even national level. If you serve the public, and the public is becoming increasingly multi-cultural—1 in 5 citizens in the county my social worker is from were born outside the U.S.—how do you serve people you know very little about and may not understand very well?

Whenever we interpret behavior, whenever we decide what someone else’s actions mean, we are obliged to do so from the perspective of our own experience.

First of all, keep everything in perspective: while it’s true you won’t understand some things about people from a different culture, you will actually understand some others. We may all be cultural beings in some ways, products of our unique national culture, but we are also human beings in many others. Some things about that Salvadorian father may be forever unfathomable to you, but some other things will be as true for him as for the American father who is your next appointment. You’re not doomed to misinterpret everything that father says and does; just some things.

Second: with clients from a different culture, don’t assume you understand what’s going on in front of you. Assume, in fact, that you don’t, and then proceed to check your understanding with the client. I told my social worker that the next time she met with Mr. and Mrs. Miranda ,she should bring up the subject of involving the father in cases like this, state her perceptions (that Mr. Miranda seemed disengaged), ask if her perception was valid, and have a discussion about what the clients felt Mr. Miranda’s role should be in solving the problem.

Which brings us to the third thing public servants can do in such cases: let the members of the public educate you about their culture. Since it’s not realistic for you to become expert in 35 cultures, let the experts in those cultures help you. Ask the Mirandas what would happen/if it might work to try solution X or approach Y in their son’s case. By all means bring your professional expertise to bear on the situation, even if that expertise may be somewhat ethnocentric, and let the Mirandas pick the parts that will work in their culture and reject the others. Just as you should not assume all your expertise is relevant, don’t assume all of it is irrelevant.

Fourth: Use the cultural resources around you. Mr. and Mrs. Miranda can certainly educate you about their culture, but so can the coworkers and colleagues from their part of the world who happen to be in your workforce, if not in your office or even in your division. One out of 8 Americans is foreign-born, and 1 out of 6 people in the U.S. workforce. There may not be another Salvadorian or Chechnyian in your immediate workplace, but there may be people from the same region of the world or from a similar culture. And if not, then somebody you know—from church, from your child’s school, from day care—has to know somebody else who knows somebody from El Salvador. You don’t have to figure all this out on your own.

Fifth: Give the Mirandas some credit. They know they’re foreigners, that it is they who have moved to your country, and that the burden is therefore on them to learn about and try to adjust to your culture (just as you would feel the burden if you immigrated to their country). And they’re probably trying very hard. At some level, the Mirandas know it’s not realistic to expect a middle-class, middle-aged Caucasian American social worker to figure out where two rural Salvadorians are coming from. They may realize, in short, that you probably are misinterpreting some of their behavior and that you may on occasion be giving them some pretty ethnocentric counseling, and they will make the necessary adjustments.

Craig Storti, a consultant and trainer in the field of intercultural communications, is the author of seven books. His latest, Speaking of India, describes the common cultural flashpoints when Indians work together with North Americans and western Europeans. He can be contacted at: [email protected].