Human Relations: Mutual Respect Starts with a Conversation

I often ask, “Why can’t everyone just get along?” Is inappropriate behavior and comments by firefighters a product of cultural, gender or social differences, or is it just that someone is being an insensitive and unprofessional jerk?

Rather than just accepting diversity in our firehouses, we should strive to understand our differences and use it to promote a renewed attitude of cultural sensitivity and social accountability for our unique workforce.

In his article Why Diversity is Important in Civil/Public Service Departments, Darren Hyson said,

In the context of the workplace, valuing diversity means creating a workplace that respects and includes differences, recognizing the unique contributions that individuals with many types of differences can make, and creating a work environment that maximizes the potential of all employees”

Understanding Cultural Sensitivity

Mutual respect around the firehouse starts with an awareness of our similarities—we’re all certified firefighters and emergency responders with similar training and preparation. We usually come from within the same neighborhoods and regions of our communities.

In spite of physical, educational and character differences, firefighter and emergency response training is the one similarity that brings us together in the firehouse.

Every member sitting around the firehouse kitchen table was hired through a comprehensive selection process, designed to select members who meet the qualifications of a first responder and who represent the community they serve, it’s through speaking community members’ languages or understanding their cultures.

Exhibiting a lack of respect for these differences sends a message that you don’t have the same values or vision as your leadership, and the associated insensitive, unprofessional behavior destroys the teamwork that’s integral to the safety of firefighters on the fireground.

Mutual Respect Begins by Becoming Sensitive

Cultural and social sensitivity is the awareness that cultural and social differences and similarities between people exist without assigning them a value—positive or negative, better or worse, right or wrong. The biggest problem is that these behaviors can be difficult to define and identify.

How do you know if you’re being insensitive? Cultural and social differences between people are often displayed in such differences as language and dialect, physical appearance, group identity, directness of communication and reaction to ambiguity.

These differences almost always result in communication problems—such as difficulty understanding someone or conveying a meaning to someone—that result in an unanticipated negative reaction to your comment. When you’re working with someone who’s from a culture, gender, race or spiritual background different from your own, be culturally and socially sensitive.

Avoid Conflict by Discussing the Details

More often than not, cultural and social conflict is a product of people’s inability to recognize the way culture shapes the actions of others. However, it also stems from failing to recognize how culture shapes their own ideas, attitudes and actions.

Carefully consider your own thoughts and feelings about how someone so different than you could become a firefighter. We don’t usually notice the cultural content in our own behaviors or how our behaviors and comments might affect others. Yet, it’s easy to become annoyed with others’ actions and responses that seem very different from what we perceive as natural and normal.

Try to see things from the perspective of others. Awareness of our own behaviors and attitudes gives us a basis for responding to cultural and social differences in a rational way.

It can be hard to get feedback that you have been insensitive. Watch carefully for signs that you may have said or done something unintentionally offensive, or that you may have to set things right. It’s the right conduct to be mindful of the things you say and how it may affect others both personally and professionally.

Words can have so much impact; some words can be unforgivable and others unforgettable. Lack of communication is one of the biggest reasons we’re unable to get rid of cultural and social insensitivity.

Eduardo González Jr. has said, “Being aware of the power of our language is not about being politically correct. It’s about treating people with respect and dignity and increasing awareness.”

Greater cultural awareness between people and in the words we choose creates relatedness, commonality and unintentional biases.

Alternate Strategies That Can Create Better Communication

 Listener – Speaker Speaker – Listener 
 I am interested in what you are saying, but your language is offensive.  Thank you for being interested in what I have to say; I will work to explain it differently.
 Did you need to make your point by using those words to accentuate your point.  Thank you for not jumping to conclusions about my intentions; it’s a habit.
 I don’t want to take your comments/terms out of context. Did you mean to suggest …?   Thank you for not taking my remarks out of context. I was trying to be provocative not offensive.
 I am interested in your perspective, but the way you are approaching this topic promotes hostility not understanding.  Sounds like we should discuss in greater detail.
 I hope I am not being too sensitive, but ….  I apologize if my words were offensive; that was not my intention.

Understand the Differences and Be Open About Them

The firehouse should be a place that encourages open discussions and fosters teamwork. Taking the time to learn about each other through respectful and open communication will make the team more effective.

Linda Willing says, “One thing that is clear is that a commitment to diversity and inclusion must be practiced and reaffirmed constantly, far beyond just doing a class once a year … it should be the beginning of the conversation rather than the end.”

The main goal in any workplace is to foster an environment where peers demonstrate mutual respect toward one another and are free to have open conversations about one another, because ignorance is not an excuse to treat someone disrespectfully.


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