Adapting Across Cultures

This week, Melissa will be presenting on a panel at Brandeis University with Professor Andy Molinsky, Christian Höeferle, and Nils Teissier du Cros on the subject of adapting across cultures. Here, she shares her thoughts ahead of the event.

As I prepare to speak to a roomful of bright young students, I am a bit in awe of their already global lives. Many are international students learning and living in a foreign culture; most of the domestic students have been abroad, too - some more than once. On the surface, it looks like they have the world on a string; perhaps they are the ones who should be telling us what it is like to cross cultures!

However, my work with students also tells me that they are likely hungry for frameworks, knowledge, and guidance about how to make sense of their cultural encounters and get better at them. They may be concerned with how to mesh disparate cultural influences into an integrated life of clarity and equilibrium. They might have questions, anxieties, ponderings, and observations that they haven’t been able to share or don’t know what to do with. Above all, they may be eager to make their current and future adaptations go more smoothly. So, what do I tell them?

Here are 7 of my tips:

  1. Know why you’re doing it and what you want to get out of it. Professor Molinsky notes in Reach that people are more successful stretching their comfort zones if they have conviction. Do you want to get an internship? Make friends? Lead a global team as a step toward a promotion? Use this as your touchstone: it will motivate you when you get discouraged and give you a sense of where to focus your energy.

  2. Accept that it’s going to be awkward and hard. Crossing cultures can make you feel as if you’re writing a thesis on a subject you’ve never studied or like you’re part of an improv group performing for a live audience. This doesn't mean you’re not trying hard enough or that you’re failing. It’s just like this sometimes - and it’s ok.

  3. Prioritize learning what is appropriate for the contexts you encounter regularly and the behaviors you’re expected to perform. If you’re from another country and want to live and work in the U.S., this may be small talk and speaking up in meetings. If you’re from the U.S. and going overseas, it may mean learning to slow down and letting the conversation breathe before diving into a to-do list.

  4. Get yourself a mentor. It’s impossible to give ourselves objective and constructive feedback on our own behaviors or critique our own interpretations of situations - especially when it involves a different culture. You’ll get better at reading cues and responding appropriately if you have an expert to check in with from time to time.

  5. Have realistic goals and expectations. Are you determined to be the best American expat in Asia ever? You’re probably going to fail because it’s too sweeping, vague, and impossible to measure. On the other hand, you probably can learn how to take up less physical and emotional space while riding the metro in Tokyo this week. This small success will give you a feeling of competence and manageability in one context, laying a foundation for more growth. (And, if you don’t feel like you nailed it, you have a topic for your next mentor session).

  6. Don’t turn it into drudgery. When you start to feel burned out, or if you find yourself constantly griping and venting, it’s a sign that you need to replenish your reserves. The right response depends on the situation; sometimes it may be better to retreat to your bubble and call home; other times it may help to focus on what you like about the culture, or to take a field trip to experience a new part of it.

  7. Go beyond performance to meaning-making. You run the risk of becoming a fluent fool if you don’t cultivate a sense for what matters to locals and how they see the world. In a related vein, you should also ask yourself what you want this experience to mean for you, both now and in the future, when you are no longer in this culture. What do you want to carry with you, how is it changing you, what have you learned about yourself and the culture, and what will you miss?

There are many ways to approach cross-cultural adaptation, and these 7 tips are just a start for students as they navigate (or prepare to embark on) a new cultural encounter. I’m so delighted to be a part of this panel, but more than this, I truly enjoy working one-on-one with individuals who want to learn and grow. If you would like to explore this topic together, or you know someone who would benefit, I encourage you to reach out!