If you ever went through cultural transition or you are an introvert living in the western culture which promotes extroverted leaders, you perhaps have experienced the pain caused by cross-cultural behavior adaptation.
This journey might sound familiar to you. One day you woke up and realized the difference between your own behaviors and those of others around you, making you feel uncomfortable and isolated. As a result, you may have developed internal thoughts in your mind such as “I don’t belong here” or “I’m not as good as my peers.” To blend in, you begin to mimic the behaviors of others, making you feel frustrated, anxious or even guilty. You find yourself feeling artificial and fake. If this story sounds like something you’ve gone through, you need to develop your global dexterity.
In his book Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process, Dr. Andrew Molinsky defines global dexterity as the ability to adapt your behaviors without losing yourself. He mentions that disruptive feelings in cultural transition are caused by different behavior expectations such as directness, enthusiasm, formality, assertiveness, self-promotion and personal disclosure. Born and raised in China, the Confucian cultural upbringing taught me to be very different compared with the behaviors US culture promotes. Below are some tactics I’d like to share about how I built, and continue to build, my global dexterity. I will highlight the differences between traditional western and eastern behaviors in specific situations.
- Casual and Enthusiastic (western) vs. Formal and Restrained (eastern)
In China, networking takes place much differently than it does in the United States. For example, a person is not typically invited to parties where she doesn’t know the host. Networks are built through one on one introductions rather than attending specific networking events. During my initial study in business school, I often felt like an outsider in those networking events while everyone else seemed so comfortable laughing and enjoying their cocktails. I eventually developed a blended approach: join the network event in the pub, but sit by the bar without moving around a lot.
The tactic: blend behaviors from the new culture and native culture.
- Expressive & Low Authoritative (western) vs. Reserved and High Authoritative (eastern)
I used to feel embarrassed and ashamed when I realized how quiet I was during class compared to my peers. Besides being an introverted person, my culture has instilled in me certain ways to interact with others. This includes a commitment to obey authorities and principles, to listen before I speak and to think first then take action. So I tend to sit and observe and spend a lot time evaluating if my idea is smart enough to be voiced. When I’m finally ready to speak, I often find I’ve missed my window of opportunity. This really bothered me in the beginning of my career. Now I challenge myself to say something in meetings, but usually I’ll contribute only once per meeting.
The tactic: set realistic expectations and take one step a time.
- Self-promoting (western) vs. Humble (eastern)
It takes me some time to get comfortable receiving compliments. Not only are Americans more generous in giving compliments, they’re also more comfortable bragging about their own skills and achievements. This is especially true in the business world, where self-promoting is expected among leaders. In his book Introvert Revolution: Leading Authentically in a World That Says You Can't, Andy Johnson, Executive coach of Price Associates, talks about how introverts are rock stars in Asian culture. This resonated with me deeply. The funny thing is I’ve been in a ‘leadership” role since elementary school, but I don’t ever feel the need to promote myself. To build that experience in graduate school, I intentionally applied for a leadership role in Thunderbird’s GLOBE club, where I felt safe to promote myself.
The tactic: take a leadership role in a place you feel safe.
- Direct (western) vs. Indirect (eastern)
For a long time, I had trouble asking for help. Some people interpret asking for help as adding a burden while others feel they will be owed a favor if they help in the humble eastern culture. When I first enrolled in graduate school, I was very frustrated that my English was not good enough. I had to do something to improve but was reluctant to ask for help. One of my classmates generously offered to help me help and asked if, in turn, I would help him with his Mandarin. Since then I learned that I can be direct once I know a value exchange is there.
The tactic: knowing you bring value to someone else will make it easier to ask for help.
Recognizing the need to adapt your behaviors versus successfully adapting your behaviors are two different things. The challenge of cross cultural behavioral adaptation originates from a gap between how we tend to behave and what behaviors are expected in the new culture. However, it can be a downward spiral if we adapt our behaviors to the point of losing who we really are.
According to Dr. Molinsky, “To adapt your behavior, you need to be flexible.” This includes being flexible enough that you understand your boundaries. When you should adapt and when to opt out; how fast you adapt and how much you adapt are all boundaries to consider. If you are not a runner, don’t follow someone training for a marathon. Know your own personal limitations.
Be aware that you always have options. Find your own way and be selective of your adaptations. If there are any things I wish I knew earlier, it’s that all behaviors are appropriate in specific situations. You just have to figure out what works best in each situation and be true to yourself regardless of in what situation you find yourself.