Many societies consider elders highly respected figures of authority who guide the family and the community as well as help maintain traditional standards. Often the opinions and perspectives of older more experienced community members are sought before important decisions are made. As a result, many cultures have rules and strict standards for approaching a superior or interacting with an elder. The value of an elder’s experience and wisdom in a traditional culture may be discounted in American society which places great value on innovation, youth, and “up to the minute” information. The relaxed, informal American workplace may be very strange for a refugee or immigrant accustomed to a structured, hierarchical environment.
Among entry-level employees are some older immigrants who previously held highly respected professional positions in their native country as teachers, doctors, politicians, or business owners. The loss of status, respect, and self-esteem among these older employees may be an issue in the workplace as well as a source of personal stress. This can be particularly true when younger employees from the same cultural community excel on the job and are given increased responsibility due to their accelerated rate of acculturation and language acquisition. It is important to remember that many of these elders have the skills to be leaders and will likely be respected by co-workers from the same culture.
The following scenario depicts the thoughts of an employer and employee who are unaware of the cultural barriers between them.
Employer: “I don’t know what’s wrong with Paulo. He never wants to talk or joke around like the other staff. I try to encourage him. I even give him pats on the back sometimes! He’s so withdrawn. I know he’s a lot older than everyone, but I’ve tried to make him feel welcome and included. It’s like he doesn’t want to be part of the team.”
Employee: “My boss makes me feel so uncomfortable. She talks to me like we are brother and sister! Sometimes she even touches me! I am a 55-year-old man. Where I come from it’s an honor to speak with your elders. We talk in a quiet voice. The elder talks first and the youngster listens. It’s not her place to be like that with me. Even though she’s my boss, she should show more respect.”
This misunderstanding occurred because Americans are much less formal in their communication and usually do not use titles to address their elders.