Thursday, February 5, 2015

Cultural Insensitivity Results In Workplace Difficulties

Dear Tazi:

I work with a Latino woman I will call "Yolanda" - that's pronounced JO-lan-da, with a "J", and if you mispronounce her (real) name she will let you know it in front of anyone who might be listening. My name is "Chrissy", but Yolanda is constantly mangling it, calling me "Kree-see". When I try to correct her, she says I am being culturally insensitive and walks off in a huff - along with whatever questions or paperwork she had for me, which slows things up around the office.

Yolanda and I were recently assigned to work on a big project together - the kind that could bring me the big career break I have been hoping for for a long time now! Although I am very careful not to mispronounce Yolanda's name (and believe me, her real name is much easier to mispronounce), I occasionally slip and she dresses me down in front of our other team members. I got sick of this really quick and told her that my name is "Chrissy, not Kree-see" and that maybe she should work on her English. This comment got both of us a trip to the Human Resources department after she filed a complaint against me, again calling me "culturally insensitive".

Tazi, I felt like a kid being called into the principal's office! After hearing the whole story, the HR Director told us both that we need to bury the hatchet and work well together or that he will reassign both of us to a different project. He pointed out to Yolanda that she is doing the very thing that she gets upset with others over - mispronouncing names - and that I had every right to be upset about it. I did have to apologize for telling Yolanda to improve her English, though, which I did not think was very fair.

All went well for about a week, when I slipped on the pronunciation of Yolanda's name. She threatened to file charges of harassment against me, saying I was being emotionally abusive. I have told HR that she is the one who is being abusive and holding people to a double standard. HR reassigned me to a different project, but not Yolanda because her skills are needed more than mine on this project.

I have talked to an attorney, but he has said I have no case - that I cannot prove discrimination; that I was reassigned due to a personality conflict. All day, every day, I dream and pray that Yolanda will fall flat on her face and get fired. I know this is not very nice, but this project was suppose to be my big break! Can you think of any way to help me get over my anger and on with my life?

Chrissy, Not Kree-see

Dear Chrissy, Not Kree-see:

I hate to break it to you, but you do sound a little insensitive. Telling a Latina to work on her English skills because she struggles to say your name properly is harsh. I realize hers is a double standard, but look at things from her point of view: She speaks with a thick Latin American accent, which means English is not her native language. She has probably worked very hard to learn the language, and you tell her she needs to work harder. That is cold. In her native language, the letter "Y" is pronounced as "J"; the fact that she has not Americanized her name leads me to believe that this is one of the few links to her culture that she still has...and every time you do not take the time to slow down and properly pronounce her name you are taking a small piece of that culture away from her. Now do you understand why she has told you your behavior is culturally insensitive?

The fact that Yolanda is valued for her skills should tell you that she is not going to be leaving the company any time soon; in fact, it could mean that she will be climbing the ladder of success while you are left on the bottom rung. Bilingual employees who are also skilled at what they do are a premium find! Are you certain you can afford to have Yolanda as an enemy?

You ask how you can get over your anger and get on with your life. I think that making peace with Yolanda would be the quickest way to do this. Try sending her an email asking to speak with her about your personal differences. Offer an apology for any unintended slights to her culture, and ask her to explain - slowly - the proper pronunciation of her name so you may learn it. In time, Yolanda's name will roll of of your tongue as easily as a Hawaiian can say "Queen Liliuokalani", and you will discover that forgiveness is the only thing that can heal an angry heart.


Ask Tazi! is ghostwritten by a human with a Bachelors of Arts in Communications. Tazi-Kat is not really a talking feline.

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