Cultural Diversity: The ‘Appearance’ and ‘Reality’ divide

The 21st century has changed the ‘face’ of the world, and some will suggest that the  inter-connecting characteristic of globalisation has been at the heart of this change: The evidence is everywhere to see in the cultural diversity that characterises many of our world cities: London with a population of 7.7 million, New York, 8 million, and Sydney 4.5 million, – cities located across the different corners of the world in which approximately 150 – 300 languages are spoken – and growing! The fruits of globalisation are quite clear to see.

I am British, and have recently joined the trend of ‘whingeing poms’ that have left the UK to live in the sunny shores of Australia. I arrived Sydney, approximately 2 months ago, having been here 2 years ago for a short visiting stint. As a Diversity Consultant, I had some clear initial pre-conceptions of Australia prior to my arrival. Essentially, I thought it would be a culturally ‘un-diverse’ society. But how wrong I was! In Sydney alone, there are over 200 languages spoken, and a very great visible mix of cultures stemming from a wide selection of countries from across the globe – which is fantastic to see. I immediately found my pre-conceptions of this as a distinctly homogenous society disintegrating…

However, intertwined into this ‘visible’ cultural richness, was something deeper that I later noticed: That the cultures do not really inter-mix. Though there is visible rich cultural diversity, there is little real integration of these cultures. I noticed that people tend to stay within the ‘safe’ cultural ‘enclave’ of friends and family, with minimal effort to really ‘branch’ out. This appears to have created a subconscious suspicion and fear of ‘others’, with particular cultures ‘singled’ out as ones to avoid: “…I don’t tend to hang out in western Sydney, the people there are a bit dodgy…”, I once overhead in a lift conversation. Incidentally, I was just about to get on a train to western Sydney – where I live!

Since arriving here, one thing has been made distinctly clearer in my professional mind – there is a big difference between ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’, and concomitant with that, a big difference between ‘cultural diversity’ and ‘cultural integration’.  Indeed, not understanding the differences between both, presuming that diversity exists because one sees diversity visibly, leads to what in philosophy is called the ‘appearance/reality’ dichotomy – the idea that things are not in reality what they might appear to be. Coming from the UK, and more specifically from London, also a very diverse city, but one where cultural integration to a great degree is observed and indeed felt in the fabric of social and workplace behaviours and attitudes, I found that though the cultural diversity within Sydney appears similar to London in many visible respects, a ‘gap’ exists in terms of the internalisation of the behaviours and attitudes that will shift Sydney society from cultural diversity to cultural integration.

But a very important point needs to be made here: for a country that was only colonised in 1788 – just 200 years ago – Australia’s emerging diversity is in fact a fantastic opportunity for making its mark in the ‘diversity space’. And there is plenty evidence of that emerging in the workplace, where a great many organisations are not only keen to leverage the competitive edge of their diverse workforce, but are indeed even more keen to ensure that the results are monitored, measured – and communicated! I think this may well be a degree of commitment that organisations in the UK ought to take worthy note of. Indeed, testimony to this is the most recent achievement of Commonwealth Bank of Australia, who have been awarded the internationally renowned global Catalyst Award 2012 for Gender Inclusion.

The world is a very diverse place, and therefore suggests by implication, that the  experience of diversity will in and of themselves be very diverse in nature. Globalisation is a great thing, but it does not guarantee actual cultural integration – as some may be inclined to think. It simply acts as a positive catalyst for ensuring that our diverse cultures have the opportunity to meet each other.

Our world cities have a lot to learn from each other, ensuring we maximise the opportunity that globalisation provides, to shift from cultural diversity to cultural integration, where the appearance is in fact translated into reality – where each person’s diversity is leveraged to positively impact on society and the workplace.

4 thoughts on “Cultural Diversity: The ‘Appearance’ and ‘Reality’ divide

  1. Dear Mr. Martin,

    Thank you for your post on the subject of cultural diversity vs. cultural integration. This is an enormously important subject, and I appreciate your thinking on it – I have lived the last 10 years in Australia, but have recently returned to the U.S., in part for family reasons but in part because of the divide you describe. Let me briefly share my perspectives on this situation.

    Cultural integration requires certain psychological characteristics in a person in order to be secured. One is a willingness to “make contact” with people who are different from you: if you are content in their own “cultural bubbles”, there is no motivation for doing this: except in the workplace. I think this is the best arena for cultural integration to take place.

    Going beyond the “tolerance” of difference to the “embrace” of it really requires a brave heart. I would be very curious to hear elaborations on what you think happened in the U.K. that allowed more integration to occur. What opened the minds and hearts of people to be brave enough to genuinely “meet’ and work with people with very different backgrounds and perspectives? My own experience in Australia (predominantly in South Australia, where I worked as a Leadership Consultant) was that women Aussies were more interested in this than men, although there were delightful exceptions to this. I think the “relaxed openness” of Australia is partly just inexperience and newness, which is not bad in itself but still requires considerable work in the area of multicultural sophistication: work I suspect you are doing over there every day.

    At any rate, I said I’d be brief and I’ve already broken my pledge, so I’ll sign off for now. All the best in your efforts in Oz, and thanks once again for highlighting an important issue in your post.


    Greg Jemsek

    • Dear Greg,

      Many thanks for your kind response and for taking time to ‘pen’ your thoughts.

      I think you’re absolutely right to suggest that cultural integration requires certain ‘psychological characteristics’ to happen. We call it ‘Psychological Safety’ – the idea that each individual needs to feel secure in himself or herself in order to initially attempt to ’embrace’ cultural differences. In Australia, as you know so well, I do not think we have arrived at the point where each culture feels ‘safe’ enough – and by ‘safe’ I mean being at peace with one’s own difference so as to be at peace with the reality of difference in the other – such that it allows cultural integration to happen.

      The difference between the UK and Australia, and to be perfectly honest about it, is that the UK, a country with a history going back 100’s of years – has had time to get used to difference, from as far back as the days of the ‘Empire’ – a term many would prefer not to use because it does bring back negative memories, but one which on a high level suggests that interacting with difference had been happening at a subconscious level for many years, such that at a conscious level many years later, diversity and inclusivity has become a fundamental part of what it means to be British. In Australia, to be Australian or to be called ‘Australian’, is a term ‘allocated’ to Anglo-Australians, which is actually historically a contradiction and an anachronism, but one which nonetheless has become accepted in the psyche of many.

      But you are also correct to suggest that debates such as these is ‘new’ to Australia and partly down to ‘inexperience’ and I have seen a sincere desire by many to learn and understand this ‘newness’. Thankfully, people like yourself who have worked here have made a great difference, and importantly, engaging in discussions like these, ensures that we continue to do so, changing mindsets as we go along.

      Kind regards


  2. Thanks for posting this – I think your distinction between “cultural diversity” and “cultural integration” is very important.

    I’m a New Yorker living in London, and I think it’s really interesting to look at diversity and integration in different big cities, as you are with London and Sydney.

    Do you feel London has always had good cultural integration? I would have presumed that it has become more so over the decades. If my presumption is correct, what do you think has helped bring it forward?

    I look forward to reading more of your posts!

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