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Addressing Disparity in Everyday Encounters

April 5, 2022
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In this piece by Cultural Infusion’s Project Assistant, Nicola Diomides in collaboration with Chief Technology Officer, Rezza Moieni, the topic of disparity is explored, as an important dimension of diversity. This research demonstrates that understanding disparity can lead to more meaningful relationships with peers and community members.

You may have heard the term ‘disparity’ before. I hear it a lot when people talk about money. Like, for instance, disparities in government spending. 

But, this isn’t the only use of the term. Disparity is actually a critical concept within the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) space. As discussed by our Founder and CEO, Peter Mousaferiadis, greater social inclusion can be achieved by understanding diversity metrics

I guess you might be thinking, well if I don’t work in the DEI space, then why does it matter to me?

That’s the question I’m going to try to answer for you, because you’ve probably experienced disparity in your everyday life, without even realising. And the benefit of understanding this topic is that you will develop better interpersonal relationships with those around you. 

A Social Scenario 

Imagine you are at an office end of year party, you’re having a conversation with someone that you don’t really communicate with outside of work hours. 

Person A is thoughtful in their answers and often engages in periods of silence 

Person B is very talkative and feels uncomfortable with silence 

It starts to get a bit awkward, and we’re all human, if we feel uncomfortable in a conversation, our natural instinct is to start analysing, or maybe even judge. 

So, in this scenario, Person A might be thinking, “they won’t stop talking, why are they so dominant, it’s overbearing and rude, I don’t even have a second to think”

While Person B might be thinking, “Are they going to say anything? Do I have to lead this whole conversation? They must be really shy, or maybe they’re just not interested in talking to me”

Safe to say, they’re not getting along like a house on fire, but why? 

Through the lens of intercultural understanding, we could observe that Person A comes from a high context culture, meaning their communication style is reliant on non-verbal communication (silence, body language, eye contact). On the other hand, it can be assumed that Person B comes from a low context culture and is much less reliant on non-verbal communication.

That might sound a bit technical, but pretty much, what I mean by that is, in this scenario,Person A doesn’t really feel that talking is absolutely necessary to communicating. Whereas, Person B tends to fill any silence with words, perhaps sometimes without even thinking, because in their mind, silence = bad.

I guess that explains the joke, *crickets*, which plays on the sound of silence and is pretty commonly used in Australian culture. Come to think of it, it essentially perpetuates the notion that we should avoid silence at all costs. 

So, as you could imagine, the miscommunication described above can create barriers in conversation, and may lead to feelings of awkwardness, misjudgement and practices of othering or stereotyping. This is a common manifestation of disparity

Disparity is just one dimension of diversity. According to the Stirling model, which UNESCO reports on, there are three elements: disparity, variety and balance. So, when you think of diversity, think of it as a recipe, you need just the right mixture of these key ingredients. It truly is a balancing act. 

Source:  Rafols and Meyer (2010, p. 266)

As shown above, disparity can be defined as the degree of dissimilarity or distance between a pair of elements or types. Put simply, disparity means acknowledging that an individual or group is different to you, but furthermore, it means understanding the extent of this difference. 

What was lacking in the encounter between Person A and Person B was an awareness of why there was distance in the conversation and an acknowledgement that the reason that they weren’t getting along was definitely not because they couldn’t, but because they didn’t understand each other. 

For argument’s sake, let’s imagine that Person A is a Chinese migrant and Person B is an Anglo Australian. 

To uncover the disparity between these two cultural backgrounds, we may look to Hofstede’s model which analyses the values of a given society. 

Source: Hofstede Insights

The above demonstrates that Australian and Chinese values are substantially different, which may also explain the miscommunication during the conversation between Person A and Person B

We’re still at the office end of year party…

Person C and Person D have just rocked up. They seem to be getting along pretty well, despite not knowing each other too well. 

It is revealed that Person C is French and Person D is Spanish. 

Source: Hofstede Insights

As you can see, by comparison, Hofstede’s model shows that French and Spanish cultures share very similar values. 

So, it is safe to say that the disparity between Person A and Person B is much greater than the disparity between Person C and Person D

By understanding and measuring disparity, we can learn about the Other and transcend barriers such as prejudice, stereotypes, bias, racism and discrimination. Let’s return to the thoughts that Person A and B were experiencing during their conversation. If Person A understood why Person B wouldn’t stop talking, and Person B understood the meaning behind Person A’s silence, they would have had more empathy and patience during that conversation, leading to mutual respect, and possibly even friendship.  

However, let’s not forget that Hofstede’ model, explored above, only looks at one facet of diversity and that is, country of birth. And, this doesn’t even account for the many cultural ethnicities that don’t have a national identity. 

Our data driven platform, Diversity Atlas, tells us that there are many other dimensions of diversity to consider, including, religion/worldview, language and cultural ethnicity, as well as demographic factors, including age, sex, gender etc. 

Different people, different worldviews

If a Catholic and Sunni Muslim were in conversation, chances are they would each have different perspectives on a variety of topics and issues. But, why?

The simple answer is that each of these worldviews are underpinned by a unique way of seeing the world. 

If we look at the above visual from Diversity Atlas which is loaded with  8500 worldviews, we can see that Catholicism comes from the Worldview Branch of Christianity while Sunni comes from the Worldview Branch of Islam. This means that the disparity between these worldviews is much greater than Catholicism is to Orthodox, for example, as they both come from the same branch of Christianity. 

Disparity between religions has been consequential in modern society. Differences in worldviews can often be the source of conflict as religion typically involves authoritative and binding norms which apply to key facets of society including, gender, sexuality, family life, education and other matters.

It is important to be open-minded to new thoughts, perspectives and ideas because not only will this create fascination and intrigue, but will also build critical thinking and enable meaningful connections to be formed. 

The World of Languages

Have you ever heard someone speak a different language, and it’s so unfamiliar to you that it’s hard to believe you live in the same world? If you’ve experienced this, you can put it down to the disparity between those languages. 

For example, if the only language you speak is English and you hear someone speaking Mandarin Chinese, you might feel completely lost. With 12,000 languages on its database, Diversity Atlas unpacks this through visuals that measure the difference between languages. In this case, Mandarin Chinese and English are drastically different as they come from different Macro Zones of Mandarin Chinese and Sino Indian. 

On the other hand, if your mother tongue is French and hear someone speaking Italian, it would sound familiar and you might even be able to understand some of the words or phrases. This is because French and Italian come from the same language family and are both known as romance languages. 

Spanish is also a romance language…another potential reason why Person C and D didn’t experience much distance during their conversation.

Accounting for Disparity in Everyday Life 

The first step of recognising disparity is the realisation that significant differences exist between individuals and groups in society. Failure to address this can result in conflict, in the form of ethnic and race based discrimination and even physical violence, as we resort to prejudices and stereotypes to guide our perception of the Other. By raising awareness about the importance of understanding and measuring disparity, we can build intercultural understanding, acceptance and tolerance. 

Our platform Diversity Atlas provides organisations with rich data that measures the cultural and demographic diversity of its working environments. With these insights, organisations have the ability to learn about the diverse backgrounds of their teams and uncover the disparity that exists across religions, cultural ethnicities, languages and countries of birth. Embracing this diversity will lead to greater representation, creativity and innovation.  

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