The 3 Essential Myths of Cultural Adaptation

Global Competence

By Andy Molinsky, Expatriate Specialist: Global Competence

The workplace has never been more global than today. But ironically, I often find that the last thing on people’s minds when doing cross-cultural work is this global element. Instead, people tend to focus more on the here and now – the immediate, pressing work details on their plate, rather than the nuances of cultural adaptation. And as a result, when it does come time to focus on culture, we follow our gut. We do what intuitively sounds right.

But what if our gut is actually often quite mistaken when it comes to cultural adaptation? That’s what I’ve found from studying this issue for over 15 years and from living and working abroad myself. In fact, there are three very common myths we fall prey to that can undermine even well-intentioned efforts at global flexibility.

Myth 1: Learning about cultural differences is the key to success.

Learning about culture and cultural differences is important – there’s no doubt. It’s important to note that in Germany, you tend to give feedback that’s direct and to the point, and that they don’t particularly appreciate the softer American-style “sandwich approach.” Or that subordinates speak to authority figures with much more deference and politeness in Japan, China, and Korea than they do in Israel, Canada, or the US. But cultural awareness alone isn’t going to get you very far. It’s not going to build that relationship, seal the deal with a customer, or lead that meeting. What’s really critical when crossing cultures is the ability to adapt and adjust your behavior in light of the differences that exist. It’s behavioral flexibility that matters, not just cognitive awareness.

Myth 2: The way to succeed across cultures is to avoid faux pas.

Makes sense, right? When you’re at the pub with friends in London, you want to know that it’s key to buy rounds for others and not just pay for your own drinks yourself. When you’re accepting a business card in Japan, you don’t want to quickly stick it in your pocket – or, heaven forbid, write anything on it. But at the same time, if you focus exclusively on differences, you miss the big opportunity of crossing cultures — which is finding commonalities. In the end, the way to truly build relationships and trust across cultures is to find similarities… what you have in common — that you and your colleague both have young children, or that you both enjoy Mexican food, for example, rather than how you are different. So, be aware of the faux pas, but don’t become overly obsessed with them.

Myth 3: When in Rome act like the Romans.

This is the big one. And it’s probably the most common piece of advice I hear. The saying actually comes from ancient days – in the time of St. Augustine – when it was essential to conform local religious customs (such as fasting on particular days) when traveling to different parts of Europe. And now, of course, it has come to mean adopting local customs in a foreign land.

Now there’s clearly nothing wrong about being appropriate in a foreign culture – we all want that. But what if the rules in a new culture threaten your own personal or cultural values and identity? For example, 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 Indian, learning to interview in the U.S., and feel intensely uncomfortable with the level of self-promotion required to make a positive impression?

In the end, you don’t want to avoid completely acting like the Romans, but you also don’t want to feel required to mimic their every move. Find a way to create a blend or a mix between your own personality and customs and what is expected in the new culture. In the end, adaptation is important, but so too is authenticity. And that’s critical to remember when crossing cultures.

Cultural adaptation takes effort. But it’s also not rocket science. Avoid these myths, and you’ll be on well on your way to a successful global career.

Visit here to receive my free guide to 10 cultural codes from around the world, and here for my very best tips on stepping outside your comfort zone at work.


Andy Molinsky

Andy is the author of Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone and Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process, Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School, and highly sought-after speaker.  Read more…


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