Living in a culturally diverse society is a fact of life in New Jersey. We interact daily with people from a wide variety of cultures at work, at school, and in our neighborhoods.

But that cultural diversity can also bring misunderstanding between people born in the United States and those born in other countries. And these misunderstandings arise from a variety of circumstances, from simply not knowing the language to the subtle nuances of cultural norms.

With this in mind, the Mercer and Central Jersey chapters of the American Conference on Diversity and the Plainsboro Human Relations Council will present a free interactive panel discussion, “Embracing Humanity — Unifying Diverse Communities,” on Tuesday, September 20, at 5:45 p.m. at the Wyndham Hotel and Conference Center in Plainsboro. Contact to register.

One of the catalysts is Paul O’Brien. The owner of Golden Rule Real Estate in Plainsboro, O’Brien has also been a member of the Plainsboro Human Relations Council for several years.

“I joined the council because I wanted to do something in my community to promote understanding,” he says. But even after joining the council, he found that there were few programs that directly worked to promote those goals in Plainsboro. “We participated in Traditions (a program that promotes the variety of cultural influences in Plainsboro) and Founders Day, but I thought we should also be doing something specifically as a council to promote these goals,” he says. O’Brien is also one of the founders of the Plainsboro Business Partnership, which looks to connect township business owners and residents.

O’Brien grew up in New Milford in Bergen County. He earned a bachelor’s in psychology from Pace University in Manhattan in 1990 and also has a master’s in public administration from Kean University in 1996.

He worked in mental health and human services, focusing primarily on brain injury rehabilitation at Rehabilitation Specialists. Soon he ran the company’s residential departments, and, when he left, was director of sales and marketing.

After six years with Rehabilitation Specialists O’Brien became program director for HealthSouth in North Brunswick, where he was in charge of moving some group homes and supported apartments into Plainsboro. Then, with a certificate in assisted living administration he ended up at Bear Creek in West Windsor. “I was recruited while the company was in bankruptcy protection and was changing ownership,” says O’Brien. “I saw that as a challenge and ended up turning the company around.”

At that point O’Brien had begun to tire of the 24/7 responsibility for facilities and staff required in his field. In 2004 he started as a real estate agent with Century 21 Carnegie, which became Gloria Nilson GMAC. When he got his broker’s license he opened his own real estate brokerage in 2008.

#b#Listening to all voices#/b#. The September 20 event will give attendees the opportunity to do more than just listen to experts or a small group of speakers, O’Brien says. It will begin with several speakers discussing their experiences in four areas: business, health, education, and the community. The group will then break into four smaller sessions where each of the participants will have the chance to talk about both their good and bad experiences in these areas and develop specific ways to improve cross-cultural understanding.

No matter which of the four major areas is discussed, issues revolve around two major areas: cultural norms and language difficulties. Cultural norms may be the harder area to address, because by definition, they are subtle differences in attitude, perception, and ways of handling situations that are ingrained in us from a very young age. Because one culture views certain things as accepted, they are often not only unexplained to newcomers, but cause confusion and misunderstanding to a person from a different culture.

In business, cultural misunderstandings occur on both sides, for the business owner and for the consumer, says O’Brien. “Many folks come here from cultures where negotiation is a way of life in business. They expect to negotiate on the price in a retail store or in the mall. The shopper is confused while the store owner feels insulted. But what is really happening is a miscommunication of ideas.”

The problems can be even more difficult for contractors or service businesses. “The contractor may think he has properly explained the job and the price, but once he has done the work he finds himself being asked to negotiate,” says O’Brien.

Language problems can also be a career barrier to many people. If an accent is difficult to understand or grammar is not as good as it needs to be, it can hold them back from promotions, from getting a job, or from gaining new clients.

#b#Miscommunication in healthcare#/b#. Navigating the healthcare system can be difficult enough for a person raised in this country.

Understanding our healthcare system is often the first problem for many newcomers to the U.S. Then there is the language barrier. While a person’s English might be excellent in daily life, understanding medical terms — particularly in the stressful situation of dealing with a health problem — can be quite difficult.

#b#Education#/b#. While ESL (English as a Second Language) programs are available in every public school for children, it can be more difficult for adults to find such a program. But the problems of education for someone moving to the United States are often more complex than simply learning the language. For professionals in fields that require licensing or certification, there are a host of additional difficulties.

University requirements and licensing requirements vary greatly from country to country. A licensed doctor, nurse, pharmacist, engineer, or teacher may discover that they must start their education from scratch and get a new bachelor’s degree and one or more graduate degrees to be able to practice in this country.

In the community. The nuances of culture in daily life in the community may be both the most subtle and the most difficult to learn. O’Brien often hears about problems in police relationships.

“In this country police are seen as authority figures who represent law and order,” he says. “They are respected. But in other countries that is not the case. In some countries the police are looked down upon and not respected. In others they are feared. For a policeman walking into a situation and not knowing the cultural background of the people he is dealing with, it can make a difficult situation that much harder.”

O’Brien says that local libraries, particularly the Plainsboro Library, with which he is most familiar, are often bright spots for culture, the arts, and education. “Ginny Baeckler (recently retired library director) and her successor, Eileen Burnash, both have done a great deal to promote cultural sensitivity in our area,” he says.

O’Brien’s goal for the September 20 event is to do more than just share stories. “I hope that we come out of this discussion with specific ways that we can improve awareness and share those ideas with others,” he says.

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