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Language and Culture Barriers in Public Safety Professions Posted by on May 19, 2014 in Language Learning, Trends

Today’s law enforcement, corrections, and emergency services personnel are under immense pressure to perform daily duties in increasingly diverse environments.   Linguistic and cultural barriers can arise, rendering routine operations difficult and potentially dangerous. Training personnel in languages and cross-cultural sensitivity arms them with the ability to better understand and interact professionally in an increasingly global environment.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of people speaking languages other than English in the U.S. has increased by 158% over the last three decades.   Not being able to speak, read, write, or understand the language of a person you are trying to communicate with presents immediate, obvious challenges.  I have worked in retail security and law enforcement, both as a police and corrections officer, and have painfully waded through the swamp of information gathering with a detainee whom I did not understand, and who also did not understand me.  These encounters usually resulted in a humorous yet frustrating exchange of gestures, improvised sign language, and back and forth sharing of sketches resembling prehistoric cave drawings.   Another tactic was to rely upon an impromptu interpreter who probably did not have my best interest at heart, yet seemed to supply the necessary information needed at the time.  One can clearly see how this influences accuracy as well as safety for law enforcement professionals.

In the public safety realm, equally if not more important than overcoming the verbal barriers that arise, is dealing with differences in cultural backgrounds and the norms surrounding non-verbal communication.  There are many varying beliefs about eye contact, gestures, personal space and proximity, and facial expressions.   For example, in the U.S., eye contact is generally perceived as an expression of honesty and being present and engaged in a conversation.  For a person from Asia or the Middle East, too much eye contact can be a sign of rudeness or disrespect, hence looking someone in the eye while conversing is avoided.  From a law enforcement perspective this lack of eye contact could easily be misinterpreted as dishonesty, hiding something, or guilty behavior.  Another common example is the simple hand gestures that we use every day, such as pointing, which can be considered very rude in some cultures.. In some European and Latin American cultures, they exaggerate the use of hand gestures to add emphasis and expression to their conversation, but this could easily be misconstrued as aggressiveness in other cultures.  Gender also plays a significant role in cross-cultural communications.  Consider for a moment the potential communication barriers that could be encountered by a female law enforcement official performing a routine traffic violation stop with a male from the Middle East.  In this situation the context of gender can also be reversed creating a set of potentially different reactions. These kinds of cultural misunderstandings or misinterpretations can quickly raise anxiety levels, increase defensiveness, and elevate perceptions of threatening behaviors.

Routine and emergency response practices of decades past no longer meet today’s diverse global population.  Huge advances in training methodologies, techniques, and tactics have transformed daily operations and responses.  In order to bridge the communication gap and build a rapport with the communities they serve, law enforcement and security personnel must have some background knowledge of the prevalent cultures and languages used.  Through education and training, law enforcement and emergency service personnel develop the tools necessary to work professionally in multi-cultural conditions.  By augmenting training to incorporate innovative strategies in language and cultural education, savvy departments and service providers enhance the professional interactions of each employee.

Integrating a training program to combat a lack of language and cultural skills can seem a daunting task.  Presentation of a language program may result in moans and groans from staff.  Many view learning language as an overwhelming undertaking.  One place to begin is by taking an assessment of your personnel’s current cross-cultural knowledge.  It is an easy non-threatening place to begin.  By polling your personnel with a questionnaire that presents expanded scenarios regarding body space, eye contact, touch and other physical mannerisms from other ethnic and cultural backgrounds, a sense of initial cultural sensitivity and understanding can be established.  This information can be used as a springboard to introduce further awareness in follow-up “did you know” e-mails or inter-office memos.  Getting personnel to begin thinking and talking about cultural differences and communication issues softens steps in presenting further training necessary to build more comprehensive communication bridges and reduce communication and cultural gaps.

Does your department’s training analysis miss this vital entity?

Ready to implement a language training program for your public safety employees? Learn more about our corporate language training offerings and contact us!

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  1. Serena:

    I think communication is all about creating ‘commonness’, it is embedded with the love of interpreting right meanings of a message.How can we create common understanding without learning a well known language? As far as public safety professionals are concerned, they are serving the role of handling a complex situation. Therefore, they cannot afford to compromise with language :/

  2. jacob:

    The law does its job to balance the stakes between different people.

    No matter what language or culture, respect is the most important language of all.

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