Seeing Applicants Accurately: Bridging Cultural Gaps

Julie Shenkman
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Cultural and racial diversity have dramatically changed the way we do business in the United States. Nowhere is this more true than in the mortgage lending arena. Not only have the Fair Lending and Community Investments Acts made us all more conscious of the necessity of lending fairly, but, as individuals, we are gradually becoming aware of the subtle and unintentional forms of discrimination that have plagued the industry. At the root of this confusion lies the challenge of accurately interpreting the behaviors of people whose background is unfamiliar to the loan officer. It is human nature to be drawn to and to trust people who are like, or appear to be like, ourselves. When an applicant is reared in a similar environment to our own, we feel confident that we share the same basic rules of etiquette, the same values, and the same ways of communicating. The comfort that comes with this familiarity leaves us more ready to trust, more willing to take a chance, and, inevitably, more ready to do business. On the other hand, when presented with a person whose appearance, accent, or demeanor is different, we feel less confident and our anxiety and suspicions are raised. Let's look at some of the common cultural misunderstandings that can create this discomfort. Body Language: What You See is Not Necessarily What You Get Studies show that body language accounts for 50% of the communication process. Unfortunately for the cause of good communication in a multicultural business environment, rules of appropriate body language vary dramatically between cultures. In the United States, for example, we traditionally respond most positively to direct eye contact, a firm handshake, and a smiling face. As we'll see here, it is not always possible to make correct judgements based on these familiar clues. Variations in Eye Contact Native-born Americans maintain eye contact for approximately 1 second before looking away. By contrast, Asians tend to avoid eye contact especially when conversing with authority figures. Middle Eastern men and some African-Americans tend, on the other hand, to prefer very direct eye contact as a means of communicating effectively. The danger here is that loan officers will see the former as lack attentiveness and the latter as a sign of hostility. In most cases, neither assumption is correct -- the degree of eye contact indicates nothing more about the applicant than their rules of body language are rooted in a different culture. Differing Handshakes Think about it for a moment: How did you react the last time someone gave you a limp handshake? If you were born and raised in the United States, you probably looked on the handshake as a possible sign of weakness, lack of confidence, or indecisiveness. If the applicant was Asian or Latino -- cultures in which firm handshakes are generally regarded as rude -- your assumption would almost certainly be incorrect. Facial Expressions There is a Korean proverb that translates, "The man who smiles a lot is not a real man." To Koreans, smiling at strangers or authority figures is rude and intrusive. Other immigrants -- such as the Vietnamese and Japanese -- may smile to cover up anger or discomfort. Loan officers who were born and raised in American culture are apt to assume too quickly that a lack of a smile means insolence or coldness and that the presence of a smile automatically indicates satisfaction and good feeling. Language Barriers and Communication Style More than 400 languages are spoken in the United States today. Loan officers, of course, cannot be expected to learn them all, but here are some tips that can help you avoid some of the confusion that language differences can create: A heavy accent says nothing about lack of English language ability, education, or intelligence. An accent is merely the way the words are pronounced. Some non-native English speakers may pretend to understand your comments for fear of looking stupid or showing disrespect to the loan officer by asking him or her to repeat what has been said. Statements like "I think I understand," may indicate a desire to let you know that they do not understand without coming straight out and saying so. Accent differences can make an applicant sound inadvertently rude or demanding. Lack of knowledge of how demands are softened in English -- turning a demand into a question or adding softening phrases such as "when you have a chance," or "if it's alright with you" -- can also give the false impression that an applicant is angry, defensive, or hiding something. Conclusion Applying for a loan is stressful under the best of circumstances. If we add to the usual anxiety, the applicant's concerns about language ability, potential discrimination, and confusion over the system, you have a situation in which your ability to relate with sensitivity, awareness, and compassion to every individual can mean the difference between fair lending and the loss of valuable business. Sondra Thiederman is a speaker and author on diversity, bias-reduction, and cross-cultural issues. She is the author of Making Diversity Work: Seven Steps for Defeating Bias in the Workplace (Chicago: Dearborn Press, 2003) which is available at her web site or at She can be contacted at: Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D. Cross-Cultural Communications 4585 48th Street San Diego, CA 92115 Phones: 619-583-4478 / 800-858-4478 Fax: 619-583-0304 / The material in this article is based on that found in Dr. Thiederman's book, Profiting in America's Multicultural Marketplace: How to Do Business Across Cultural Lines (New York: Lexington Books, 1991. Copyright Cross-Cultural Communications. Should you wish to re-print this article, you may do so as long as long as the current copyright statement and all contact information is included.

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  • Melissa Kennedy
    Melissa Kennedy
    Thanks so much, Dr. Thiederman for sharing this. It's amazing that we're so close to the body language and gestures of our culture that we can't see what's different and what they say about how we think. This is so interesting.
  • Nildca cruikshank
    Nildca cruikshank

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