May 26th - 2014

Cross-cultural competency is good business

The ability to work with people of different cultures and backgrounds is not only a good interpersonal skill, but it can also help your business.

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International flags

The ability to work with people of different cultures and backgrounds is not only a good interpersonal skill, but it can also help your business.

That’s the view of several management and real estate professionals who spoke to the REALTOR® EDGE newsletter about the importance of cultural sensitivity in an increasingly diverse province.

Immigrants are important to Ontario’s real estate market, says David O’Gorman, a mortgage broker and OREA instructor. He developed a unique course on cultural diversity in real estate that he has been teaching at real estate boards across the province for the last seven years.

Respect is crucial when you are dealing with people of different backgrounds, says O’Gorman. He advises REALTORS® to take the time to explain concepts thoroughly, since some immigrants come from countries where it is uncommon for people to own real estate.

It is not always easy to determine what is respectful or disrespectful to others, he notes. Some cultures may value multi-generational family decisions when buying a house.  Others may be insulted if a visitor declines food that is offered, he says. 

“The key thing is to find out what’s important to your clients,” says O’Gorman. “Rather than focusing on cultural differences, approach each situation as a learning experience and ask people about their wants and needs.” 

Enhancing your cultural competency as a REALTOR® takes time, he notes.  “You must expose yourself to different cultures and get involved.  Sitting in isolation won’t help you understand the perspectives of people from other parts of the world.” Volunteer, participate in and sponsor multicultural events, he advises.  

“Learning how to work with multicultural clients is not just a social advocacy exercise, it is about economics and profitability,” says Oscar Gonzales, a U.S.-based strategic consultant to the real estate industry who specializes in multicultural markets.

Hands on keyboardThe diversity of consumers represents an exciting opportunity, says Mississauga REALTOR® Sam McDadi, whose brokerage caters to a growing multicultural market. Its website states that, “My sales associates, administrators and staff speak more than a dozen languages, including English, Arabic, Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Ukrainian, Russian, Italian, Persian, Farsi, Dari, Pashto, Greek, Spanish, German, Indonesian, Cantonese, Korean and Polish. With such diversity in Mississauga, it’s important to ensure all our clients are comfortable and completely at ease throughout the entire real estate process.  This is why my team is comprised of individuals from so many backgrounds.” He tries to match his brokerage clients with REALTORS® who speak their language and understand their culture. “This has really helped us in the market,” he says.

Being aware of general cultural practices and beliefs is helpful when dealing with clients of different ethnicities, says Toronto diversity advisor Diana von Appen. However, she cautions REALTORS® to avoid stereotyping.  “It may be tempting to think that a Filipino person will want a home in a Filipino neighbourhood, but never assume anything,” she says. “Remember that each person has their own unique ideas and viewpoints.”

Superstitions about numbers exist in some cultures, so she advises asking non-judgemental questions such as “Does the house number matter to you?”  Be prepared for a yes or no, says von Appen, so you can present a range of options. “It’s important to avoid judging, or else the person may feel embarrassed to be honest with you.”

Some Chinese buyers may be reluctant to purchase a home containing the number four in the address because that number is considered unlucky, while the number eight is considered good luck, but it is vital to ask each client their opinion, the sources advise.

Greetings can make or break a business deal, notes McDadi.  “For example, in some cultures it is considered improper to shake hands with someone of the opposite sex who isn’t immediate family. You could offend someone without intending to, so you may want to wait and take your cue from the client.”

Many cultural groups appreciate and welcome your interest, the sources all say. “Visit different neighbourhoods, read ethnic newspapers, connect with as many people as you can and ask respectful questions,” says von Appen. “People are usually happy to share with you.” McDadi adds that “You can learn a lot by being engaged. Often when I’m with clients I ask them about their culture because I’m intrigued.”

Rhonda Singer, a speaker on cultural intelligence, says that “REALTORS® may want to ask clients of different ethnicities how they go about finding homes in their country.  This will offer insights into what they value.” To learn more about a culture, it may be helpful to dine at an ethnic restaurant, read articles and books or watch a movie from there, she notes.

It is impossible to be an expert on all cultures, O’Gorman says. Instead, he advises REALTORS® to zero in on groups relevant to their business.  “Drive around to see who lives in your community.  You can also get Statistics Canada information, which is often broken down by ethnicity for an area.”

Although people from a given culture may seek certain features in a home, you cannot generalize about the entire group, says O’Gorman. All clients have their own needs and desires, which should be respected.  

The concept of feng shui may be important in Asian cultures. Feng shui is a system applied to the position and orientation of a home and its contents, thought to agree with spiritual forces of health and happiness.  For instance, when the front and back doors of a home align, some believe that removes positive energy, says McDadi. He was selling a multi-million dollar house but several buyers said they were deterred by the alignment of the doors, so he worked with the seller to modify the home and it sold quickly after that.  

Multi-generational families may want to live together in some cultures, so McDadi says homes with secondary living accommodations such as in-law suites -- especially those above ground level -- can prove attractive to buyers. A neighbourhood’s cultural makeup and local amenities can also play a role, he adds, since an area heavily populated by a certain ethnicity may appeal to buyers seeking a familiar community. 

Advertising in real estate can be targeted to multicultural markets. McDadi has advertised his brokerage in local Chinese, Indian and Pakistani publications.  He notes that listings often contain “triple eights”. A property selling for $900,888, for instance, signifies a Chinese-friendly home, he says. 

Language and translation issues can be a challenge in real estate. Recognizing the importance of communication, McDadi’s group offers services in a variety of languages. However, not all brokerages have a large multilingual team, O’Gorman says. Since all parties to a real estate transaction must understand it, he recommends using a professional translator. “While you may initially rely on family members to translate, an independent translator is a must in final negotiations,” he says.  “Finding a neutral party for this role is always a smart move.”  

Although you may find it difficult at first to understand someone’s accent, continue to make the effort, advises von Appen. “After a while your ear will attune to it. Don’t let fear or embarrassment prevent you from trying to communicate.”

The capacity to work with different cultures and ethnicities is becoming increasingly important for REALTORS® as the province grows more diverse, McDadi notes. “Taking the time to understand different cultures will go a long way towards building up your business.”

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