“You could probably define cultural adaptation by using a very complex system of ideas, but let's not do that now. For now, let's simply refer to it as our acceptance of any new developments that allow us to thrive and be happy with each other in our society. This is a system of belief like any other, and with beliefs come myths, wether we like it or not. The three myths that Andy Molinsky has produced around cultural adaptation in the following Harvard Business Review article are worth considering.”
The workplace has never been more global than today. But despite that, I often find the last thing on people’s minds when doing international work is the global element. Instead, and often for good reason, people focus on concrete and pressing work details: finishing that PowerPoint deck, running the financials one more time, or planning the logistical elements of foreign travel. As a result, they tend to follow “gut” theories — what they assume to be true about adapting behavior across cultures.
The problem is that these gut instincts are often false, misleading, and difficult to apply. In studying this topic for the past decade and working with hundreds of professionals from across the globe learning to adapt behavior, I’ve identified three such “myths” of global adaptation:
Myth #1: The only thing you need to do is learn about cultural differences
Seems obvious, right? To be effective overseas, you need to learn about how cultures are different. How the Germans give feedback differently from the Chinese. How Americans tend to self-promote more than Brits, and so on. However, learning about cultural differences in theory does not necessarily translate into successful behavior in practice. In fact, it’s often quite difficult to perform behaviors you aren’t used to, even if you have an intellectual understanding of what these behaviors are supposed to be. The real key to crossing cultures isn’t learning about differences: it’s being able to adjust your behavior to actually take the differences into account.
I’ll illustrate with a personal example. When I first started in this field in the early 1990′s, I was working at a resettlement agency in Boston helping former professionals from the Soviet Union learn to interview for jobs in the United States. The clients I worked with were able to quickly learn about cultural differences — that, for example, in the United States, you had to smile, make eye contact, and answer questions in a friendly, upbeat manner about the weather or the commute to the office. But they struggled taking what they knew and translating it into actual behavior. One woman I worked with told me that if you smile in make eye contact in Russia like you do in the U.S., you’ll look like a fool (and, I presume, feel like a fool). I’ve found the same essential challenge to be true across a multitude of cultures and situations. Learning about cultural differences is clearly important, but it’s only the first step towards developing real cultural intelligence.
Myth #2: When in Rome, act like the Romans
This idea actually comes from ancient times — from the letters of St. Augustine that described how important it was to adapt to local religious customs. I’m certainly not one to quibble with St. Augustine — and acting like the Romans certainly makes sense as a philosophy for fitting in and winning the favor of local clients, customers, and business partners. However, what happens when acting like the Romans means violating your own personal or cultural values and identity? What if you are told to shake hands or kiss a man as part of a new culture’s ritual, but in your culture it’s forbidden for women to do so? Or as a less extreme case, what if you’re Russian, learning to interview in the U.S., and feel intensely uncomfortable with the level of self-promotion required to make a positive impression?
The point is not to completely avoid “acting like the Romans,” but it’s to develop a way to customize or personalize how you act in the new culture so you act appropriately but at the same time maintain your own personal integrity. Adapting behavior in another culture is not like trying to hit the absolute bulls-eye of an archery target. You typically have more leeway than that to find a way of adjusting your behavior so you have your cake and eat it too: being appropriate and effective, but without compromising who you are.
Myth #3: Just be yourself
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this from managers and executives: that the key to being effective is just “being yourself.” Of course, there is nothing wrong with “being yourself,” but at the extreme, this piece of advice completely ignores the fact that there are real cultural differences you must take account for when working overseas. Ignoring them can cause tension between you and clients or coworkers. You have to find a way to be yourself, but at the same time, act within the confines of the new culture’s code of behavior.
Adapting to a new culture takes serious effort, thoughtful strategy, and, often, a great deal of courage. But managing this balancing act will pay great dividends for you and for the people you manage and lead.