How To Respect Aboriginal Culture While Communicating

Communication styles, inferences, and active listening can significantly affect dialogues and pathways to understanding–whether in a workplace, social or personal setting.

For example, do you know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people may refer to an Aboriginal Elder woman as ‘Aunty,’ not as a relation, but to recognise a community member of high standing? However, calling an Elder ‘Aunty’ or ‘Uncle’ without permission or a pre-existing relationship may not be well received, demonstrating the importance of respect.

Building the Foundations for Respectful Conversations

Any individual of any heritage, ethnicity, or background requires acknowledgement and respect to enter into a meaningful rapport. Learning is the first step to showcasing an inclusive approach, ensuring you take responsibility for equipping yourself with sufficient knowledge and education to understand how the perceptions of First Nations people may differ from your own.

NAIDOC Week, an annual event commencing on the first Sunday of July, is an opportunity to become engaged in events, activities, commemorations, and celebrations that can provide invaluable access to learning resources.

What is NAIDOC Week? It is a nationwide event that shares achievements, honours Aboriginal excellence, and invites all communities to participate. For example, young artists can submit pieces based on the yearly theme, highlighting talent and creativity that we can all appreciate.

Cultural Sensitivity in Dialogue

Historically, communications between cultures have been impacted by one party holding dominance over another. It is impossible to embrace cultural respect without recognising the economic disadvantages, racial discrimination and familial separations that have affected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for generations.

Reflecting on social injustices, unconscious bias, and inequality can help us all, as Australians, to appreciate how our world views may mean our interactions, thinking, and behaviours differ. As a starting point, acknowledging social disadvantage and marginalisation can help us incorporate understanding and sensitivity into our communications by:

  • Accepting that First Nations people may not share our worldview and that their belief systems, culture, thoughts, and feelings are as important and valid as our own
  • Recognising that proposing solutions can be harmful; rather than assuming we know the answers or have preconceived resolutions, we must actively listen
  • Avoiding stereotypes, which can be profoundly offensive, regardless of the intent

A lack of consultation is a mistake, where even with the best intentions, we approach a task, project, event, or collaboration by making assumptions about how local Aboriginal communities and Elders may or may not wish to participate, be represented, or provide direction.

Differences in Cultural Communication Styles

One of the basic ways to establish respect is to acknowledge that people communicate differently, without any one style ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the other. Holding space for societal differences without anticipating conformity with your usual conversations is essential.

Selective hearing means that we hear only what we want to or disregard some aspects of our communications. By actively listening and repeating or summarising the information, ideas or perspectives offered, we affirm that we have heard and can clarify where necessary.

  • Avoid speaking over the other person, trying to force your perspective, or interrupting. Asking questions can be powerful, but waiting until another correspondent has finished speaking ensures the dialogue is respectful to all parties.
  • Avoid directing conversations immediately to the matter at hand. In many traditional First Nations cultures, personal relationships are far more valuable than professional dialogues. By making time to introduce yourself, form a trusting relationship, and build rapport, you create a connection that can make further communications more productive.
  • Avoid assuming everybody in Australia speaks English as their first language. There are more than 250 Indigenous languages, and many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people may speak another dialect, including Torres Strait Creole, Aboriginal English, or Kriol. Imagine trying to engage with somebody speaking another vocabulary with the automatic expectation that you are a first-language speaker–you can begin to appreciate how abrasive this might feel.

Explaining why you wish to ask a question, giving as much time as necessary to answer, and verifying whether you have correctly understood can be valuable. Western culture places far greater importance on rushing solutions, filling blank spaces and concluding a dialogue as quickly as possible, which may jar with the conversational style of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

By using a mindful, respectful, and active listening approach, the outcomes you achieve will likely be far more meaningful and useful, demonstrating the value you place on establishing an equitable dialogue.

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