Remapping your cultural clout

How to adapt behavior to a new culture without losing authenticity

An American consultant travels to Tokyo to meet a potential client, a Japanese CIO. When the CIO offers his business card, the American thanks him, takes the card and glances at it quickly, slips it into his pocket, and goes right back to the conversation. 

Will this consultant get the account?

Another American is working as a manager in a bank in Munich. She gives her staff criticism the same way she does it at home. First, she finds some aspect of their performance to praise; then she explains what she wants them to improve, and ends on an “I have every confidence in you” note. 

Andy Molinsky
Professor Andy Molinsky

Do the bank employees respect her leadership?

In both cases, the answer is probably no. Even as transportation and technology erase national borders, distinct cultural differences remain around the world, often thwarting our best-laid plans when we live or work in an unfamiliar place.

That’s where Andy Molinsky comes in. An associate professor of organizational behavior at Brandeis International Business School (IBS), he’s the author of “Global Dexterity,” the ultimate guide for anyone looking to succeed in another culture, published this year by Harvard Business Review Press. He shared insights from the book in an Oct. 8 talk, “The Essential Skills of Global Dexterity,” one of many events held on campus during Brandeis’ International Education Week, which ran from Oct. 6-11. 

Molinsky shows people how to adapt their behavior to a new culture without losing their authenticity in the process. “Fitting in without giving in,” he calls it.

Ideas about appropriateness vary dramatically across cultures. Behaviors related to etiquette — like the proper way to receive a business card — are fairly easy to adapt, once you know what’s expected. In Japan, for instance, you accept a business card by taking it in both hands, slowly reading it, then carefully putting it down on a flat surface, all in a formal display of respect.

But the vast majority of cross-cultural challenges are much trickier, Molinsky said, because they involve complex, nuanced behaviors, some of which may even be frowned upon in your home culture. Asian students in the United States, he explained, often find networking events incredibly difficult, because “bragging” about themselves — even to a potential employer — feels unseemly and wrong. 

Giving feedback can be another pitfall, Molinsky said. An American working in Germany has to learn to offer criticism straight up — undiluted by positive affirmation — if she wants to be taken seriously.

Understanding the specific rules of interaction in a culture isn’t easy. But it isn’t as terrifying as you might think. Being effective and considerate in a different culture isn’t like hitting a bull’s-eye, Molinsky said. Every culture contains a whole spectrum of appropriateness; you just have to find your particular place on it. 

Merging your cultural identity with your locale’s culture is in many ways like being a fusion chef, Molinsky said. Ideally, you’re trying to create a cardamom crème brulee or a kimchi burrito — to combine two different traditions to make something that has eclectic appeal.

Another way of minimizing psychological turmoil as you adjust to a different culture, Molinsky advised, is to reframe how you think about the differences. 

If you grew up in Sudan, for example, you learned that looking an elder in the eye is deeply discourteous. Yet if you take a job at an American university, your colleagues are going to expect you to make eye contact. How do you do something you believe is terribly rude? Molinsky suggests you focus on your ultimate intention: to show respect. Refraining from eye contact is respectful in Sudan. Making eye contact is respectful in the United States. Staying flexible in your behavior allows you to be considerate wherever you are.

Molinsky will teach IBS’s first global dexterity course beginning later this month. Students taking the class will be asked to create a short video that charts their personal before-and-after acclimation to a different culture — the opposite of being lost in translation.

Categories: Business, Humanities and Social Sciences, International Affairs

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