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POTLUCKS AND THE POLITICS OF FOOD IN THE WORKPLACE


Evelina Silveira, President, Diversity at Work   co-author,  The No-Nonsense Guide To Workplace Inclusion

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While splitting the check, B.Y.O.B, potlucks, and eating leftovers from the catered luncheon are routine in a Canadian workplace; by far this experience  is not an international phenomenon. While you may think your welcoming, kind gesture to “break bread” with a New Canadian co-worker is a good idea, don’t be surprised if they have a different interpretation. Food and eating can be a highly political affair. Political? Indeed – political! Let’s take a look at one of our most popular epicurean rituals which has stood the test of time.

Potlucks

Why do we have potlucks in Canadian society? Potlucks offer an inexpensive, easy way to feed large groups of people, while providing an assortment of food the guests may have never sampled. It’s about sharing: food, workload, and preparation.

What are the beliefs that sustain potlucks in Canadian society?

  •  Cooking is a chore and not many people like it and especially when it involves trying to please a number of people whose preferences are unknown.
  • If you want to have a gathering everyone should be “pitching in” financially and effort-wise. Food and entertaining is expensive and it shouldn’t be up to one person to do all of the work.
  • It’s more fun if we all help out and we can share the joy and responsibility.
  • Hospitality doesn’t need to be formal. You can still be hospitable and casual at the same time. Everyone can be a host. It doesn’t take a lot of skill, effort or rules.

How might these beliefs clash with people who are coming from countries which are more hierarchical, formal and collectivist?

In a big way! Although the price of food has increased dramatically, it is still widely accessible and  affordable by comparison to other parts of the world. We don’t have a lot of rituals around eating except for “eating on the run”, “fast food” and “Tim Horton’s”. With a growing acceptance of vegetarian and veganism what we eat these days is less based on social stratification and more inclined to be on preference.

North Americans tend to view food in a “profane” way as the famous sociologist Emile Durkheim would probably conclude. Food is ordinary and nothing special, has no associated rituals or beliefs to preserve its “sacredness”.

This would be in sharp contrast to the many New Canadians who are more likely to view food as “sacred”. They may have grown up learning how to cook with recipes passed down from the generations, or associate foods with symbolism and rich meaning and a wider array of festivals and celebrations. Some foods may be used for medicines or spiritual healing or to bring good luck or fertility. The “sacredness” of food means the act of eating is a“sanctified ritual”. For example, Jews and Muslims will refrain from eating pork products and the meat they eat must conform to “kosher” or “halal” standards. It means that the animals are slaughtered in a religiously prescribed way to enhance the sacredness of the food and thus the sanctity of eating.
Hospitality is a lost art in North America. If you have ever shared a meal for instance with an Afghan, a Portuguese, or an Arab family – the hospitality cannot be compared. You will be treated like royalty and no effort or expense will be spared. The goal is not to make the experience easy for the host, but just the opposite. By contrast, the host wants to show you how much you mean to them by going through lots of trouble and expense. You will not feel obliged to do the dishes nor would they want you to. They want you to relax and have them entertain you. You may actually feel that they have enlisted their whole family to make you feel comfortable. The experience is formal and every action is intentional. Good hosting skills lead to many benefits including: new jobs, connections, elevated status, marriage proposals, a strengthened ability to negotiate, but most of all preserving or enhancing one’s reputation.

Are potlucks a good idea in a North American workplace? It all depends. If you want to celebrate or show appreciation for a job well done you may come across as a cheap manager or employer – an insult to your New Canadian workers. Showing appreciation and respect for employees and especially those from more formalized cultures requires: a demonstration of effort; some expense and conveying their importance in the workplace which is not a bad approach to take with all of your employees. Is it?

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The Do’s and Don’ts of Using Foreign Languages in the Workplace


How do you promote inclusion in a workplace where employees are speaking a multiple of languages?  How do you create policies that are fair?  What is legal?  What is not?  What is a good practice and what is exclusionary?  The tips below will help you to create an understanding of what are respectful language policies.

1.  Don’t  have written policies that state “English only” in  the workplace. This is illegal in Canada and an employee can cite discrimination on the basis of country of origin or language.

2.  Do take into consideration  the competing interests of different stakeholders when discussing how and when it is helpful to speak another language in the workplace.

3.  Don’t make an issue out of two people speaking together on a break or lunch hour.  Employees have the right to do so on their break, and usually they find this to be relaxing.

4.  Do encourage people  in a supportive way to speak English even if they have a language barrier. Empathize. Ask them if they would like you to correct them. Sometimes employees may use their first language for communication because they feel self-conscious about their grammar and pronunciation or the negative reaction they receive from English speakers.

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5. Don’t make rigid statements about English only in the workplace as it could backfire.  Instead,  have a discussion with employees about under what circumstances they think are reasonable.  Most companies will agree that when it comes to an emergency or health and safety, speaking a foreign language is necessary.

6. Do let employees and co-workers know if you feel excluded from conversations because they are not speaking a language that the rest of the group understands.  Sometimes people are unaware of the impact that this may have on morale and productivity as well as their self-image.

7. Don’t overlook the point that speaking foreign languages may be a symptom of a larger issue of exclusion:  workplace cliques, cultural divide, insecurity and lack of trust.  Your organization may have bigger problems that are fueling the desire to speak other languages in the workplace when it is not warranted.

To learn more about this course or others, visit:   www.yourdiversityatwork.com/webinars

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