One of Robert Assam’s most unnerving experiences as an Indigenous man working in the community sector was being shown around Darwin’s sobering up centres.

“This European girl was showing me around and every time I’d turn around she’d be staring at me! It was one of the most terrifying days of my life,” said Robert.

Her direct gaze was just her way of communicating but it made Robert anxious and afraid.

Robert told the Bulletin how even after 18 years in the community sector the memory is still clear and he uses the incident to train workers how to get the best out of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients and what not to do in the process.

“Being stared at can be very confronting. It doesn’t matter how urbanised or how educated you are, as an Indigenous person that eye contact can be very confronting. When someone is staring at us, it says we are in trouble,” he says.

Robert’s father is a Thursday Islander and his mother is Aboriginal. Robert has found his niche training people to deal sensitively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients.

And one of the least appreciated aspects of Indigenous communication is how troubling direct eye contact can be.

“Lack of eye contact is not a sign of disrespect. If someone isn’t looking at you it’s easy to think they’re not listening or are a bit ashamed to talk. But when my aunties look at me, it means I’m in trouble and I’m gonna cop it.”

Robert currently works with Queensland Health and says he very rarely encounters overt racism. But he says that in the health sphere, where clear communication is essential there can be little appreciation of the best approach to establish a useful rapport with Indigenous clients.

He tells workers to remember that the act of going to a health service can be quite difficult for anyone, but especially so for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families.

“A lot of your experience in going to a service is a negative experience. Ask anybody how hard it is to ask for help, but with health matters you’ve got to be there and that’s hard, so you’ve got your guard up.”

Expecting direct answers to direct questions can create obstacles. Direct questions are likely to be considered rude, he says. And analogies are frequently used to deliver information.

“Our mob tell stories. That is how we communicate, that is how we teach, that’s how we learn. So when you ask sometimes you’ll get an answer in a roundabout way. So be patient and wait for a reply.”

Don’t fill in the silences, he adds because gaps are important. And physically crowding can be as off-putting as insisting on eye contact.

“Tell a little about yourself, be aware of gender issues and get permission to proceed, Robert says.

Communicating effectively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients can be tricky because there can be a difference in mindsets in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s world views, he says.

“For example when Europeans meet they ask about occupation to establish status. When Aboriginals meet they ask where you are from, who your family is. As an Indigenous person it’s about trying to live in two worlds and we need balance to do both,” he said.

See Bulletin Vol12 Ed 4 for full story