Fostering Cultural Understanding at Work

Last Updated on April 12, 2019 by Estrella

Fostering cultural understanding at work.  Photo by Shopify Partners from Burst
Fostering cultural understanding at work. Photo by Shopify Partners from Burst

When you hear the phrase Fostering cultural understanding at work, what do you think of? Do you automatically think of Human Resources organizing a cultural sensitivity workshop? Or that HR is making an effort to enhance cultural diversity in the company?

How can I foster cultural understanding?

What if HR is not the only team who has the power to foster cultural understanding? What if you and anyone else who is interested in working in such an environment also has the power to do so? In this article, I want to share some ideas on how you can do this. Yes, the power of ONE.

First, I am assuming that you are a first generation immigrant. You may have co-workers from other countries, or you may have colleagues born and raised here. And you suspect that if there were more cultural understanding, you could connect with your co-workers more easily, more deeply.

Perhaps you are thinking, “What can I do? I am just one person.”

How one woman crossed cultural barriers effortlessly

Actually, you have quite a bit of power to mold your environment. At a time when there was very little cultural diversity in the workplace, a woman named Josie managed to become the center of her co-workers’ attention. By the way, she was the only Asian in the company, in an entry-level position. When a co-worker needed a ride home, she offered it. To those who were curious about what she ate, she handed them a small plate from her dinner. Among her guests at her birthday party were these co-workers. It didn’t take long for Josie to become an integral part of her colleagues’ lives. They weren’t just co-workers; they became her friends.

Josie wasn’t trying to win over her co-workers. She simply wanted to help when someone needed a ride. It wasn’t that she tried to bribe them with food, she was simply a generous person, sharing her dinner with co-workers whose mouths were watering at the delicious food made by her mother. In fact, when her Mom found out she was sharing food with co-workers, she made extra so her daughter could share.

How this woman builds community in her company

Another woman also become the pillar in her company. She worked in an entry-level position. Always, people can count on her. In fact, when a co-worker lost her father, and did not realize how expensive it is to die in America, Rorb talked to other co-workers, and within five days, raised enough money to buy the burial plot and other funeral expenses.

She is also a fantastic cook, and made the most popular dish whenever there was a party at work. Sometimes curious colleagues ask her about certain aspects of her culture. It was not Rorb’s objective to educate her co-workers. If they asked, she’d share. But she did not go out of her way to expand their views.

What are the common elements in these two stories?

So, in both Josie and Rorb’s stories, neither set out to share their culture with co-workers, but ended up making more friends than probably most colleagues. Were they outgoing? Not particularly. Neither actually thought much about cultural diversity. They would have done the same in their own country. By not seeing culture, but only individuals, they probably fostered more cultural understanding than they realize.

Deliberately fostering cultural understanding

What if you want to deliberately foster such an environment? A classmate of mine instinctively knew how to do this. (Although this took place in a school setting, the same principle applies to work.) She stood out in the way she talked, dressed, and walked. And not necessarily in ways commonly accepted in the new culture. Yet, she created a circle of friends who adore her in a short time.

The story of how one teenager builds her community

How did she do this? There is a lightness in her spirit. Even though she had not mastered English yet, she has a wonderful sense of humor. And people understand her jokes. It was fun to be around her. She would invite a handful of friends to her home for afternoon tea. Not British tea, but snacks unique to her culture. Naturally, she had to explain each of the snacks, and waited for her friends’ reaction to the taste. If one friend was surprised by the taste, she would laugh it off, not taking it personally.

In a group, she would make sure you don’t feel left out. Even if she doesn’t speak to you directly, she would look in your direction and smile. Since she has many interests, she would invite certain friends to events that interest them. She builds connection through common interests. And she remembers the stories you tell her.


So, each of the people I described were pretty much being themselves. Two of them were not deliberate about making friends. The last one probably was. In any case, their actions were not something out of the ordinary. They are all things that we could easily do. So, experiment with this, and see what you feel comfortable with. Besides building friendships, you would be fostering cultural understanding as a side benefit.

If you have found ways to connect across the culture, please share your stories. Email them to

If you find this article helpful, here is one on Tips for a smooth cultural adjustment.

Estrella Chan coaches immigrants and international professionals in English fluency, interview skills, and public speaking.    To schedule a session with her, please email

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