Understanding and Adapting to Cultural Difference in Multifamily Housing

As property management professionals, it can be easy to forget that our leaseholders come from a variety of backgrounds and nationalities. Our typical demographic has changed greatly over the course of the last generation. In North Carolina the state population has increased by 18.5% since 2000, far greater than the equivalent national rise of 9.7%.  According to the 2010 census, it now stands at over 9.5 million people.
 
In addition, the percentage of people living in the state who were born outside the United States is 7.4%. As the population has been increasing substantially, so has the actual number of families living in North Carolina who originally came from outside the U.S. This presents unique challenges for property management professionals. Some examples of real situations may help to illustrate.

Several years ago I received a call from a resident reporting a smell of smoke coming from within the building. Upon investigation, I was lead to the unit of a family who had recently moved in and who had come to the United States from another country.  While passing by the big glass door of the unit I saw an adult male grilling on a charcoal grill in the middle of the living room in a completely enclosed apartment.
 
The apartment was completely filled with smoke and it represented a significant fire hazard.  I frantically waved my arms to catch the man’s attention and show that there was a problem and he responded by waving back, as if to say ‘Hello!’
The above story is quite humorous and a good example of how we should be prepared and well versed in cross-cultural relations so that we can provide a high level service to our residents. In these instances the property manager assumed that the resident would abide by community regulations based upon our social mores. However, in both of these examples the residents were behaving in a socially acceptable manner, according to the practices of their native countries.
 
As we come in contact with other cultures and habits, we begin to realize that people see, interpret and evaluate things in many different ways. What is considered as appropriate behavior in one culture may frequently be considered inappropriate in another. In America, we have our own traditions that do not exist outside of this country and which may perplex others, including Groundhog Day, tailgate parties and Black Friday shopping mayhem. So, what I consider normal may take some explaining to someone from abroad.  We can surmise that misunderstandings will arise when I apply my experience to interpret your reality.

It is fair to say that immigrants have a wide range of adjustments to make when adapting to a new society and culture. In many cases they may no longer be able to use their own language when speaking to strangers or using services. Asking for help or explaining a problem may now be a struggle for the first time and one that causes confusion for the parties involved. Other common differences to be overcome may include driving on a different side of the road or even having to adjust to everyday situations, such as using a different electricity voltage for kitchen appliances.
 
As a key point of contact, we can help by being mindful of possible communication difficulties and being prepared to face some confusion when helping these new families.

Property management professionals can never take it for granted that a person will follow accepted practices. For example, in some countries the automatic dishwasher is a rarity in a way that would surprise us in the U.S. Indeed in some homes it would almost be considered a novelty item. Nowadays it is a standard kitchen appliance in most apartment homes. However some families may be using one for the first time and our experience shows that if they are not shown how to use the appliance, many new families will use it as a glorified dish rack, Tupperware storage cabinet or even a snack-food bin. Without some simple guidance, the dishwasher may never be used or even turned on, strange as that may seem to an American household.

As property managers we should bear in mind that that we may need to explain to other nationalities how to use dishwashers, microwaves, washing machines and other appliances, rather than assume that people already have this knowledge. As the ones providing a service, the onus is on us to build a relationship with leaseholders coming from abroad. By taking the initiative in this way, we can also be proactive about driving the relationship to ensure help is given where needed and ensure we avoid situations such as the indoor barbeque above. Remembering the old expression, ‘A friend in need is a friend indeed’, if we can ease the transition for our new residents, especially those from other countries, we can reap the reward later from being at hand to help at a time of real need. Reaching out at this stage can help to develop a strong working relationship that may bear rich fruit in the future.
 
Sources:
www.census.gov 

‘State & County QuickFacts - North Carolina’. www.census.gov. Retrieved 04.09.12.