HBR: “Adapt to a New Culture – but Don’t Go Too Far”

by Andy Molinsky  |   8:00 AM July 15, 2014

One of the most popular pieces of advice that people receive when operating across cultures is, “When in Rome, Act Like the Romans.” This advice essentially means that in order to be successful in a situation different from your own, you need to adapt to the local customs, whatever they happen to be. But what happens when you don’t have a perfect read on what these customs or rules exactly are?

Imagine the following: Cheng, a Chinese professional, is starting a new job as a management consultant at a major strategy consulting firm in the U.S. Cheng is explicitly told that he needs to show his leadership potential in meetings with senior colleagues and partners by outwardly expressing his opinions and even, on occasion, directly disagreeing with his superiors. Cheng realizes this, despite how uncomfortable it feels, and decides to go for it. The first chance he gets, Cheng tells his boss how “crazy” his idea is and how a much more sensible strategy would incorporate various other features that he did not consider in his analysis. As uncomfortable as it was to call out his boss in this way, Cheng feels proud about having expressed himself.

A few hours later, Cheng gets a message to meet his boss in his office. Is Cheng’s boss likely to praise him for a job well done or chastise him for speaking about him publically in an inappropriate manner?

The answer is clearly the latter. Cheng went too far in his behavior, and unless he has a very smart“forgiveness strategy,” he’s likely to land in his boss’ doghouse. Cheng knew that he needed to be more assertive with his boss than he otherwise would have been in China, but he wasn’t able to adjust to the appropriate American level. If in China, you are supposed to act with a 1 or a 2 on a seven-point scale of assertiveness, and in the United States the appropriate level is a 5, Cheng produced a 7.

This story is emblematic of so many other similar stories that I hear in my work teaching and training people to function successfully overseas. Individuals attempt to adapt their behavior to match a particular culture but end up pushing too far, making larger mistakes than if they had just stayed true to themselves. It’s the problem of what I call “over-switching.”

I see this over-switching phenomenon quite often in my work as a business school professor. It happens when students who are generally quite deferential with professors in their native country realize that the U.S. standards are more informal, but they inaccurately calibrate where that level of informality actually is. It also happens often in interviews and cover letters. Students from countries where self-promotion is taboo learn that it’s required in the U.S., but don’t quite understand to what extent self-promotion is acceptable. I remember helping one foreign-born student with her application essays, where the first attempt was low on the self-promotion scale (talking about how “we” achieved certain individual results instead of “I”), but in the second attempt, she leapfrogged well past the level of acceptability to become overly self-promotional (touting her single-handed accomplishments on what was obviously a group-oriented endeavor). Although the student was embarrassed to see the difference, she also appreciated the feedback because it helped her calibrate her behavior the next time around to the appropriate style.

Individuals need to take steps to avoid over-switching and decrease the likelihood that it will interfere with their success abroad. One essential strategy is to develop a detailed sense of the “cultural code” — the correct and appropriate interpersonal style — for whatever key situations you’re working in. How assertively are you expected to act in your role in this setting? How directly are you expected to communicate, and with how much emotional expressiveness? Of course, the rules for how to behave are not the same in all situations you encounter in a foreign culture. Taking Cheng’s case as our example, some work cultures are extremely informal with very high expectations for assertiveness on the part of employees. Others are much less so. Some bosses also have styles that are more or less conducive to the behavior that Cheng exhibited in this situation. The overall goal is not to just learn how the new culture is different from yours. It’s to calibrate the specific level of difference and to learn how to acclimate your behavior to that particular level.

But even if you do work hard at mastering the cultural code, mistakes are still inevitable. You must also find ways to mitigate the brunt of these inevitable faux pas. Do what you can to develop a sense of rapport or, when possible, a relationship with the person you’re interacting with. Express genuine interest in the new culture and bond over areas of mutual interest, such as sports or family. And in certain cases, if the relationship allows, see if the other person might even be able to mentor you about cultural differences and the appropriate level of accommodation.

Over-switching is a natural part of the adaptation process. The trick isn’t to make it go away; it’s to try your best to convert these inevitable errors into valuable learning opportunities.