Are You Speaking the Language of Inclusion?

In January 2017, I crafted my long-term vision board. One of the first images I added was a drop of water, merging into the blue ocean. The image had deep significance for me but I struggled to find the perfect words to articulate its meaning. Until I stumbled upon Shafik Asante’s article on inclusion. He explained it in 2 simple words: Universal Oneness. What a brave, new definition! As a passionate advocate and practitioner of inclusion, it hit home. There was no question of ‘inviting’ someone to belong. Who are we, anyway to be so arrogant to invite others in? What authority or spectacular advantage do we have over others? None at all. We are born “in”. 

As a brown-skinned person and a woman, I’m no stranger to exclusion. Because of this, I’m even more passionate about inclusion. I’m deeply aware of its immeasurable power. I therefore realize what a game-changer it can be in global teams and organizational culture. Here, I will explore 3 Key Behaviors to successfully speak the language of inclusion.

Image Credit: @andersjilden, Unsplash

Understanding Language as a Bridge vs. Barrier

Michael J Fox famously said: “If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.” As a former student of one of the most elite schools in Bangalore, I saw this pushed to its limits. The school was an exclusive, “English Speaking” zone in an effort to improve English. Ironically (and not surprisingly), most children were multi-lingual. And sometimes, they slipped back to speaking in their native language. This usually meant summons to the Principal’s office (which was rarely ever, a friendly place!) Yes, the unwritten rule helped but it also became a barrier. Many children struggled with the conflict of what they experienced at home vs. what was enforced in school.

As I continue to work with global teams, I have learned to apply the wisdom from this childhood experience. Multi-lingual ability is a bridge that helps people learn and draw insights from multiple resources. It’s not a problem or a liability. It’s a gift!  

The Bald Eagle | Unsplash | @Michael_aagaard

Tales of Cultural Agility and Inclusion

In addition to the spoken language, there are other factors that determine inclusion. Cultural agility is one of them. Why does this matter? A Fast Company article says that while sports requires physical agility, business requires cultural agility. Here are 2 stories that emphasize this truth:

The Business Traveler Story 

I was visiting the Pacific-North West after a business trip in the US. I was flying Alaska (my favorite US domestic airline) and my neighbor on the flight was American. A few minutes into our conversation, he said: Oh! You’re Indian! Well, Happy Ganesh Festival! I was pleasantly surprised but also embarrassed. Surprised that a ‘typical’ American, businessman understood (and cared) enough to wish me. And embarrassed by my own, hidden bias and flawed understanding of what ‘typical American’ meant. In just a few minutes, this rank stranger had said the magic words to win me over. Would I consider doing business with somebody like that? Heck yeah!

The Virtual Training Story 

I was once observing a leadership training. My dear friend and masterful facilitator was leading the session. Our audience consisted of leaders from 4, different countries. Consequently, their frame of reference was 4, different time zones. Usually, break time was expressed in the facilitator’s time zone. Somehow, it was the audience’s responsibility to do the math and convert time! My friend, of course, was far too wise for that kind of indiscretion. He shared a slide that illustrated the time zones of all 4 countries. In a single, thoughtful gesture, he had demonstrated cultural agility and inclusion.

What I Learned 

Whether you’re headquartered and work with the ‘region’ or live in the region and work ‘globally’, cultural agility is a mindset. It is a necessity to develop lasting relationships. Simon Sinek, in his compelling video said we need to understand people in order to understand business. What these 2 gentlemen demonstrated wasn’t their way of being ‘generous’ and ‘inviting’ people in. It was much more than a spirit of generosity. It was their way of saying who they were. Their gestures became symbols of their decisions and open mindset. They cared enough to speak a common language. They said and did the things they actually believed in.  

What a Cab Driver Taught me about Emotional Intelligence 

I rode in an Ola cab, recently. It had been a long work day. I made peace with the 20 km ride back home and decided to relax, anyway. The radio started to play one of my favorite songs. And I started to sing softly. Almost immediately, the cab driver increased the volume just a little bit so I could sing along! I hadn’t said a single word and yet, he knew exactly what I wanted. It was such a powerful demonstration of social competence! He created a great customer experience for me that day.

The stories I shared today are simple examples with powerful outcomes. They highlight the wonderful opportunities to be inclusive through these reminders:

  • Think of language as a bridge, not a barrier
  • Develop cultural agility; continuously adapt to your environment
  • Demonstrate social competence

Of all the things we can influence and control, there is none more powerful than the choices we make. Make choices that include, not exclude.

Anitha Aswath is an HR Consultant and Strengths Coach of Leader Success in the Leadership and Team Intelligence Practice Area at Cisco. She has the unique privilege of meeting Cisco clients from all over the world to serve, teach, and enable the success of their teams.



4 thoughts on “Are You Speaking the Language of Inclusion?”

  1. Loved those small tales on inclusion. Enjoyed watching Simon’s video. I am going to use some of these in my diversity workshops.. Thank for shairng

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