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The Other Side of the Multicultural Work Environment

I knew that my first experience at the United Nations would be an exceptional journey, professionally and personally, but no one told me that it would be so tough to manage on a cultural level.

 


Half French, half Chinese, I grew up in an immigrant neighborhood in Paris. This co-existence of different cultures has always been spellbinding to me and the idea of working in a multicultural environment has always been one of the professional conditions I strived to attain.


In my previous workplaces, I only worked with French people. The lack of multicultural exchange with my colleagues had motivated me to look for a more multicultural environment for my next professional experience.


After perseverance and insistence (a lot of it!), I was offered an internship at the United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe in Brussels (UNRIC). I will never forget my first day there: there were numerous interns from all over Western Europe speaking Spanish, Italian, Dutch or Finnish (to quote but a few), but all using English to communicate with each other. What an instructive experience I was going to get from this place! It was with a touch of confidence and a lot of expectation that I began my internship.


At UNRIC, the 7th floor is reserved for the Desk Officers and the administration staff. On the 8th floor are located the Library, the Desk Officers' assistants, and there are two large rooms divided into 2 offices: the "North office" with the Nordic, Benelux and UK desks and the "South office" for the Southern European countries: Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal.


France is hard to place: admittedly it is in South of Scandinavia and Benelux but North of Latin Europe and Greece. According to the UN, we are part of Southern Europe. Perhaps it is because of the language.


We all have stereotypes regarding people’s culture when we compare their behaviours. When I first arrived in my new office, I was introduced to everyone. In line with popular stereotypes, almost the entire North Office was full of blonde interns and the South Office was full of dark-haired interns.


See it as another stereotype or not, but when I first arrived, the people from Northern Europe did not really talk to me much and those from Southern Europe warmly welcomed me. On a cultural level, it was a more or less like I expected it to be. After all, stereotypes do come from somewhere!


What about the professional aspect?


I had always believed that adding a little bit of cultural background behind the work would lead to sensational brainstorming, improving the work and making it more original. And it does! People come up with ideas you may never have thought of and it is always interesting to get to know more about people's mind through the work they have done and ideas they can bring from their own countries.


But. Because there is always a “but” - I am French after all, I love to complain about the world, which is my fourth passion, after drinking wine, eating cheese on a baguette and speaking only French - there is a minor downside to being French and in working in such a multicultural environment: France is the quietest Southern country at UNRIC! In fact, working next to Southern Europeans has been a challenge I had not anticipated. It has often happened that I could not concentrate because of too much noise in the office. On the contrary, when I went to the North office, I sometimes wondered if people were upset because they didn’t even talk to each other! As if their brains were connected they didn't even have to open their mouths to express themselves. I was almost scared to say a word for fear of creating any more stereotypes such as "Ah, those Frenchies, too loud, as always!"


So, what is the solution in order to working harmoniously with your multicultural colleagues? Because one day, if you happen to work for the United Nations or any other institution, Department or firm that requires the use of multiple languages and hence people from different backgrounds, and you happen to work directly with colleagues from another country, you may be faced with culture clashes: people work too slowly, too fast, you can’t express yourself because you don’t feel comfortable enough with the language you are using, you’re not being listened to, someone else is too loud, etc, etc.


By working with people from diverse backgrounds, it is hard to say whether we absorb cultures from others or whether we strengthen ours. In any case, we have to adapt and get used working with others.


Furthermore, I don't believe that forcing people to work in the same office according to their cultural background or similarities is the best solution. It is like bringing people from the same origins into a district when they arrive in a new country. I am fully in favour of a melting pot working environment which can make people get to know each other and encourage diversity.


Finally, is homogeneity the right way to solve cultural difficulties?


I don’t think so. On the contrary, ideas are sparked and everyone brings new reflections. But everyone has to respect the other’s way of working.


All this experience can be exhausting, it’s true. But what a great opportunity! Not only does it give you the chance to focus on your ability to work within a multicultural team, but it also allows you to gain self-confidence and put your communication skills in practice.

 

Audrey Lo is an intern at the French Desk of the United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe (UNRIC)

 

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