I’m a twice immigrant. Here are a few insights I’ve gleaned, after spending over a decade in each of three different cultures, into diagnosing cultural norms and what we can intentionally do to become more comfortable – or, alas, to feel at home or just be – in a new country or workplace:
After many years outside my birth country, I realize now that calibrating my own and identifying and acknowledging broader cultural expectations has been a key factor in my finding a sense of ease, of being at home, in a foreign country or workplace. By this I mean that it’s not enough to notice how things are different. It’s necessary that we engage with those differences on a personal level. This can, at times, mean leaving certain aspects of our identity behind.
Far from tragic, this process can be enriching and rewarding. It’s great to be able to connect with people across cultures. And by default, this undertaking requires that we empty a little of our hitherto well-established sense of identity to acquire or assimilate new aspects of it. In the end, if done lovingly, though not without pain and sacrifice, this process leads to increased maturity and authenticity – which only feed our potential to be our best in relationships, at work, and as leaders.
Being mindful of the difference between acquaintances and friends in the new culture, and where one makes friends (work can be a place where you make lifelong friendships, but it is not a de facto place where you make friendships), can be equally important.
In my birth culture, my parents’ friends were primarily their co-workers. Work is, after all, where you spend the majority of your waking hours. However, in certain company cultures or industry sectors (e.g. certain domains in healthcare), work may not be the place where relationships mature or transition to the personal realm. Being sensitive to these natural limits can help us avoid an unspoken feeling of rejection and disappointment.
To build on the above… There are the obvious pitfalls to avoid when making conversation at work (e.g. personal drama, controversial topics), but what I have found more important is to be mindful of how conversations flow to avoid awkwardness.
For example, conversations in South America have a very open flow and allow for the contextual placement of personal experiences by anyone at any time. It’s almost like being put on the spot during an improv session. Here in North America, on the other hand, interjections can be interpreted as self-centered and even rude, as opposed to being perceived as a point of connection with another.
Being mindful of how you are perceived can be a hard and arduous, self-conscious process but it does pay dividends. I can say I’m a better listener now because of having been through this experience.
It’s not about imitating another culture’s expressions as much as it is about understanding them. (Expressions also apply to idioms and language, humor, gestures and body language, to name a few. However, for the purposes of this post, I focus on dress code as a cultural norm.)
When it comes to fashion and culture, dressing for the weather is a real thing, as is how much skin to show, or how much flare to display in your work wardrobe choices. It pays to develop a sense of neutrality and specificity. For example, a suit is a neutral and specific uniform that allows little room for deviation from an accepted norm. Plus it is a uniform you can easily replicate. Of course, it is important to retain our connection to our culture, and fashion is one expression of culture, but at work, it is often best to understand what helps you “blend in” as an effective team member first. In other words, the more distractions (note the other forms of cultural expression to be mindful of above) we can remove so people can see our abilities and contributions for what they are, the better.
Time is of the essence when you’re first breaking into a new culture, especially at work. Over time, people will get to know you personally (including your unique personality and perhaps even your heritage). But at first, it’s important to prioritize staying power over personal statements (especially those made unwittingly, on autopilot).
The blurb above would be unbalanced without an additional thought: be authentic. Blending in and avoiding unnecessary distractions should not come at the cost of being you. Allow your character to shine. Show your co-workers and customers who you are through both what you say and how you act. Speak up during meetings – one of the most valuable things you bring to the table is your experience and perspective. You have a seat at the table, and therefore, a duty to strengthen every decision by the quality of your input.
Twenty-three years on, the single most important lesson I have learned has been this: be present.
Cultural norms are ingrained and automatic… until you try to navigate a new culture! To effectively bridge cultures, we must be willing to pause our own culture reel and closely watch our surroundings. Every now and again, we must be willing to purge old habits to make room for new, more effective ones. To me, this very personal approach to diversity in and out of the workplace has yielded maturity, humility, flexibility, and most importantly, a more genuine focus on others.