Conversation difficulties that immigrants, minorities, and relocating majorities experience
When people are part of a minority, such as immigrants, language and cultural challenges are barriers to having conversations. But what about people that do speak the same language and seemingly belong to the same culture?
“They taught me to prove myself first before asking for anything,” These are the very words of a social worker, an immigrant who serves underprivileged families. “My work should speak for me,” she added, as she admitted she would never dream of asking her employers for a promotion or a salary raise. Is it being an immigrant and part of a minority that prevents her from doing so? doesn’t feel welcomed in her new country? Is it a result of her cultural background? Is it because she is a woman? Is it her workplace’s vibe, or is she self-censoring her aspirations to get by and run a steady life?
We conducted semi-structured interviews with immigrants who tested CommReady’s app. The questions related to their immigration experience, how they communicate with others, how they perceive new cultures, how they were perceived in the new culture, and their feelings towards their origin. Their answers were analyzed and categorized into the main themes in this article: the added value of diversity to the community and workplace, the influence of new culture-exposure on habits and character, the chameleon effect and mixed feelings regarding origin country, the impact of COVID-19 on global communication and the digital tools assisting in closing the communication gap.
Majority vs. Minority
The term ‘Minority’ in early sociology studies referred to various cultural contexts, mainly focusing on the numbers within populations to outline social disorders. Over the years, observing social-cultural phenomena merely by numbers has been condemned, as segregating a minority from the majority stands on political-bios grounds. It manifests that the minority has a temporary existence compared to the larger population, resulting in one of the three: integration, assimilation, or elimination. For instance, in the United States, studies suggest that the USA will turn into a nation of majority-minority in the future. The United States Census Bureau (USCB) population Projections stress that By 2044, more than half of the USA’s population will belong to a minority defined as “any group other than non-Hispanic White alone.” However, this approach is heavily criticized because the Census Bureau classifies mixed families as non-Hispanic white. It does not offer a different narrative for the uprising social diversity. Another question is the perception of a minority when they outnumber the majority and the conflicts that it may raise. In many cases, the fact that they were classified as a minority will determine the social perceptions towards them.
What about women? Are they considered as a minority group? Women are statistically equal to men; they are not labeled as a minority. Yet, almost a quarter into the 21st century, women are still underrepresented and discriminated similarly to minorities or, in John Lenon’s words: “Woman is the nigger of the world.”
So far, we have discussed the ideas of majorities and minorities. Now let’s examine their effect on diversity and communication in the community and the workplace.
Diversity & Communication
Whether a person belongs to a group classified as a minority, such as immigrants, or being part of a different ethnic community, recent studies show that the presence of minority groups helps reduce discrimination in the long run. The fact that the majority are in contact with the minority helps both groups to adapt. The attitude towards immigrants in the UK has transformed since it became a country of immigrant-origin minorities. As diversity, globalization, and multiculturalism evolve, communication remains a conundrum even if we assume that minorities are better off in the 21st century. Modern technology alongside the internet has produced new opportunities to communicate. Now more than ever, people from different countries and cultures work online together. However, rather than the spoken language, the unspoken messages differences keep those barriers from falling.
Suong, a young Vietnamese woman we interviewed, shared that after moving to Europe, she learned that people convey a straightforward message, something she was unaware of and took her time to adapt. Her conversation challenges didn’t include a language barrier; it was simply a cultural disparity. Gradually, she embraced that form of communication.
Nowadays, Suong isn’t only a listener at work. She speaks up and shares her ideas — but it took her time. “At first, it was difficult because the way I was born was ‘As long as you keep silent, your life will be good.” There were also unspoken codes that she had to learn. For instance, in Vietnam, an employee would never dream of leaving the office before the boss. In Europe, there isn’t such an issue.
Aysun, who immigrated to Europe, describes herself as an extrovert and generally doesn’t fear any topic of conversation. She shared her immigration experience regarding the cultural and conversational difficulties she faced at first: “I thought I knew English very well, but then I realized that to conduct my emotional life, it wasn’t enough because of the level of English I had back then. So, my level of confidence was low at the time.” As we can see, cultural differences and language barriers influence immigrants’ communication abilities. However, their exposure to a different culture also impacts their habits and character. After some time, those people seem to absorb some cultural signals and communication manners. A new and somewhat surprising challenge appears whenever they go back home to visit, which will be discussed in the following part.
Siri, Where is Home?
The communication and conversational difficulties that immigrants sense have a surprising aspect. Going back to their origin countries evokes re-socializing challenges, which affect their confidence in having conversations. They soon discover that the term “going back home” is not always as welcoming as they presumably thought. One of our interviewees, Clara, described how she felt falling out of favor: “In the States, the expectations are that I don’t communicate very well, that my English isn’t my first language, things like that. And then Vise versa when I came here. There are Prejudices as well. I’ve been seen as a foreigner and not as a Vietnamese, although I am a Vietnamese.”
Aysun visits her family quite often, but living for several years in Europe, has made it harder to communicate with her homeland people: “It is more tough than before. I feel a bit outside and different about how I conduct my personal relationships. Especially with my family.” According to Aysun, the positive nature of conversations in Turkey, where she was born, prevents confrontation, resulting in people sparing the truth. “They try to hide criticism, and that causes them to talk behind other people’s back. I don’t like that at all. Here in Germany, it’s more about giving feedback, whatever you think — you can talk about it. It allows direct conversations.” After defining the internal conflict of immigrants, especially regarding their communication capabilities in a new culture, their mixed feelings regarding their native country, and the recent cultural exposure on their personality, we will discuss the impact of globalization processes and digital advances on cross-cultural communication.
Englishman in New York
The cultural-linguistic challenges that immigrants experience affecting their conversational confidence are seemingly easier for people who immigrate or relocate to a country that shares the same language and what may appear as a similar culture. However, social and communication nuances influencing perceptions of culture and accents may drive people to embrace the “Chameleon effect” — unintentionally adopting a different accent and body language to feel safe in social interactions. Accordingly, a brit could speak with an American accent even though it is unnecessary or maybe even absurd. These people most likely do not belong to a minority, but they may sense similar difficulties.
The 21st century’s third decade began with the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. It amplified the ongoing demand for various online communication tools. Whether it is video conference platforms, customer service chatbots, messaging, or social media platforms. However, the pandemic had one other effect. People from all social classes, regardless of being part of a minority or a majority, learned how to cope with quarantine and distant forms of communication. With globalization changes, the world offers immigrants more support and opportunities to ease their acclimatization.
Nowadays, online dictionaries, social media, and online information about cultures and languages are accessible with a tap of a finger. However, people do not always grasp the scope of difficulties that the immigration or relocation process brings. Meeting people from new cultures who speak other languages with different slang or cultural gestures can compromise the confidence in having conversations. Communication skills and self-belief are vital factors that may suffer a setback. Unfortunately, people are not always aware of the emotional toll, which represses their willingness to communicate, making them feel like outcasts.
There has been significant growth in online emotional support apps and communication skill improvement apps in recent years, but sadly, not enough people are acquainted with these tools that guide people through adaption times and may ease their difficulties.
The future seems brighter for immigrants and minorities with the rise of diversity and digital tools. Generation Z and Gen Alpha are the most racially diverse generation in the USA. They are the first digital natives. Their multiculturalism attributes will keep them minded to understanding new immigrants and their needs. The other side of the coin will be once they are the ones to immigrate or relocate. They will search and use apps and online services to nurture their new cultural needs and support their confidence, well-being, and conversational capabilities.
CommReady is a communication coach chatbot, a digital companion that helps users build confidence, improve communication, and prepare for a challenging conversation. CommReady app features on iPhone and Android mobile devices.