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Dealing with Multiculturalism - 2002-11-07

English Feature #7-35114 Broadcast January 6, 2003

With immigrants from around the world continuing to come to the United States, American businesses and companies are increasingly turning to experts to help them deal effectively with the diversity of their workforce. Dr. Eun Kim, a Korean immigrant, is a consultant to American companies on intercultural communication. You'll meet her today on New American Voices.

To achieve harmony and cooperation in a workforce composed of people of many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, the first thing that Dr. Kim teaches people is to check their assumptions.

"There's no one way - there are many ways to reach the truth. One cultural assumption in one culture may not be valid in another culture. For example, even eye contact. When I grew up in Korea I was not supposed to have direct eye contact with someone superior. I could not stare at my parents, or look my teachers directly in the eye when they talked to me, because it is lack of respect and defying their authority. But in the U.S. direct eye contact is a sign of honesty, sincerity, confidence, and all those things. So I think even that assumption probably put a person who had different body language into a very negative light, unless both parties are aware of the different communications styles and different body languages used in different cultures."

Eun Kim's interest in cross-cultural communication arose from her own experiences. In Seoul she studied at an institute for the American children of expatriates and military personnel, so as a child she was surrounded by American culture. This served her in good stead when she went to the University of Texas as a graduate student.

"As a graduate student here in the United States I don't think I experienced anything shocking, I absolutely enjoyed it. I enjoyed the freedom, I enjoyed the opportunity to find a new identity far away from home."

After receiving her doctorate in education and human resources, Eun Kim went back to South Korea and opened her own consulting firm. In the late 1980s she immigrated to the United States, and joined a management consulting firm in Washington.

"Now in the USA there is tremendous movement toward cultural diversity and appreciating cultural differences, etcetera. But when I joined corporate America in the late 1980s, there was no such thing. So I learned that I was not as Americanized as I thought. There was the culture shock, because I was the only one who looked different in the office, and I felt very visible--but at the same time I felt very invisible, because the majority rules, always."

Cultural differences among colleagues in the workplace sometimes show up in unexpected ways. This was the case with Dr. Kim.

"In Korea I was a very good student. I went to the best university. Good students - all we knew was how to study. We didn't have any hobbies, particularly. But in my office in Washington, D.C. everybody went water rafting and those things during weekends as a team, and I couldn't do it, I couldn't swim. So I felt excluded. Nobody, I don't think, wanted to exclude me, but I felt excluded because on Monday morning the first thing they did was exchange photos and, you know, talk about it, how much fun they had…."

Based partly on her own experiences as an immigrant in the American corporate world, Eun Kim developed a series of seminars, lectures and workshops to help American companies and organizations foster cultural awareness and understanding in their increasingly diverse workforce. She believes that such understanding leads to better communication and reduced stress in the workplace, greater team effectiveness, and increased creativity from the interaction of different opinions and ideas. Dr. Kim applies her interest in multiculturalism to her five-year old son, Lincoln - named after President Abraham Lincoln.

"First of all, I try to speak in Korean, and he reads Korean books and he watches Korean videos. And I try to expose him to different cultures, not only Korean culture. My husband also has a multicultural background - he's Hispanic - so I try to expose him to different cultures and have him see the merits and weaknesses of each culture. He's been listening to tapes in Japanese and Chinese, and he actually goes to Chinese language school on Sundays, and he listens to French tapes, German tapes, watches French videos, so I'm try to have him raised as a global generation. I guess as a person who teaches culture --probably he's my experiment. (laughs)."

Dr. Kim, a Korean-American specialist in intercultural communications.

To read more about Dr. Kim's ideas, see "Yin and Yang of American Culture" above.