Is it always polite to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’?

Is it always polite to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’? Is avoiding eye contact with someone a sign of disrespect?

Depending on your cultural background, the answers to these questions could be vastly different. It’s something that we observe every day working at Settlement Services International (SSI), where our team collectively speaks more than 100 languages. But rather than being a burdensome challenge, this diversity is our greatest strength.

Developing an understanding of how to navigate cultural nuances will be a key opportunity for a number of industries and workplaces in the coming years, with one in two Australians having been born overseas or having at least one parent born overseas, and 518,000 additional new arrivals to the country in the 2023 financial year.

Healthcare: bridging the cultural gap

Navigating cultural differences and nuances in healthcare is central to modern person-centred approaches. Each individual’s understanding of health is inextricably linked to culture, influencing beliefs regarding the cause of illnesses and other health conditions, when and who to seek help from, how treatment should be administered, and the significance of certain prognoses.

Some cultural perspectives on healthcare can also appear to clash with the predominantly medical approach of the Australian system. In this way, the inflexibility of professionals or the system to embrace cultural understandings can sometimes result in a patient refusing care or feeling pushed into treatment.

This challenge is particularly pronounced in the short-skilled aged care sector, which is faced with a rapidly ageing multicultural population. The feedback that SSI has received from aged care providers while delivering its government-funded Home Care Workforce Support Program is that there is an urgent need for practical training that directly addresses the real-world challenges workers face when delivering healthcare in this multicultural context.

Responding to this need, SSI has launched a new online learning program to train aged care workers on culturally responsive support for seniors from diverse cultural backgrounds. This expands SSI’s existing range of diversity training courses that are also available to organisations nationwide.

Common cultural misunderstandings: a glimpse into multicultural Australia

To demonstrate the importance of cross-cultural communication, here’s a small sample of commonly experienced cultural misunderstandings that reflect the nuanced behaviours of multicultural Australia.

  1. Saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’: While some cultures view these phrases as essential for showing respect, others may express appreciation in other verbal and non-verbal ways.
  2. Eye contact: The interpretation of eye contact varies; some cultures consider it disrespectful, especially when addressing elders, while others view it as a sign of respect, confidence, or attentiveness.
  3. Greeting customs: Some cultures believe that shaking hands is always the correct way to greet someone for the first time. Other cultures rely on words or gestures, such as putting your hand on your heart as a sign of greeting and respect.
  4. Concept of family: Family extends beyond immediate relatives in some cultures, encompassing first and second cousins.
  5. Elderly care: Caring for elderly family members might mean weekly visits and the use of facilities such as residential care or nursing homes. In other cultures, this practice may be taboo or frowned upon, with sons and/or daughters responsible for providing care to seniors at home.

By developing an understanding and appreciation of these kinds of cultural nuances, workers can learn the skills required to provide culturally safe services not just in health care, but in all industries.

Equally important though, is the need to inform and support direct care workers, who often come from diverse cultural backgrounds themselves, so that they also understand their rights to be respected and safe at work, and the options available to them should they experience racism.

Unlocking your organisation’s potential

With approximately 37 per cent of Australians aged 65 and over born overseas, there is a real need for all workers to learn about navigating multi/cross-cultural contexts and nuances to avoid cultural misunderstandings.

Tapping into our nation’s incredible diversity is an immense opportunity, but if there’s one thing that I hope organisations understand, it’s that simply having a culturally diverse team doesn’t mean that you automatically reap the benefits. That’s why it’s so important to develop your organisation’s cross-cultural capabilities in positive and inclusive ways that unlock the potential of your diverse workforce.

If you are interested in learning more about SSI’s diversity training programs, visit the diversity training page on SSI’s website.

Janet Irvine is the Manager of SSI Diversity Training, an initiative of Settlement Services International (SSI), to provide learning solutions that build culturally responsive workforces. Janet has extensive experience working with newly arrived families from a refugee background as a counsellor, caseworker and educator. This experience and her role providing a range of training for child protection and out-of-home care caseworkers has cultivated her passion for creating learning spaces for people to hone their skills to be more culturally responsive and trauma informed.