Crossing Cultures: Tips from our panel

Last week, Melissa joined esteemed colleagues Andy Molinsky (Professor at Brandeis), Yan Wang (Assistant Professor at Fudan University), and Christian Höeferle (President and CEO at The Culture Mastery) on a panel at Brandeis International Business School. They beamed in from Atlanta, Albany, Boston, and Phoenix, and talked with students about crossing cultures – specifically the challenges of adapting to cultural differences and adjusting to new cultural behaviors. Below, she shares their insights and tips for your own culture-crossing journeys.

Break out of your comfort zone

Christian advised that if you ever find yourself in a position where you have an opportunity to go to another country, but you’re not sure if you feel comfortable doing it, then by all means, go. He is a living example of this, as someone who describes himself as “Bavarian at heart,” “German by passport,” and “American by choice,” and who has lived in Minnesota, Tennessee, and Georgia.

Give yourself time to adjust

I recommended that students remember that it will take time to adapt to a new place, to feel like they’re in their own skin, and to get into the rhythms of another culture. I experienced this reality when I was a student in Poland and when I married into a Korean American family, and in both cases found that what had always worked for me – what I’d taken for granted as appropriate and effective – either fell flat or backfired.

Look for mentors

Yan suggested that rather than trying to go it alone to prove your mettle, it is important to find mentors. These people (and you probably need more than one!) act as models for you to emulate, provide advice and feedback to help you improve, and serve as sounding boards and sources of encouragement when you feel alone. She herself has relied on this approach in her own transition from Chinese to U.S. culture in upstate New York.

Prepare to be misunderstood – at least at the beginning

Hopefully it won’t happen to you, but it’s entirely possible that people will have incorrect assumptions about you solely because of your home country or culture. Yan has had people assume that she’s quiet or shy because she is Chinese, and Christian continues to confront old images of Nazis with bad Hollywood accents. I have felt pushback on global teams because of a perceived American arrogance and obsession with the clock.

It can be frustrating to be misunderstood, mischaracterized, misrepresented, and pigeonholed into a box that doesn’t fit us. There’s not one easy solution, but a piece of advice is to get to know people and show them who you really are, because the people in your host country may simply be ignorant. (Depending on where you’re from and where you’re going, you might be the first real person they’ve met from your home culture)! A second piece of advice is to focus on your own adjustment, recognizing that you’re not there to validate nor disabuse them of their mistaken viewpoints.

Remember that differences are not necessarily bad

It’s human nature to assume that cultural differences will be a challenge – and they sometimes are! However, we all agreed that going to another culture also provides an opportunity to become fuller, more well-rounded versions of ourselves. I said that I liked being in cerebral Poland where people talked about literature and ideas in cafes, and that Korean culture gave me a break from American expectations about extroversion, smiles, and small talk. Christian appreciated how the U.S. encouraged him to take risks instead of feeling like everything had to be perfectly planned out. For her part, Yan found that life in the U.S. has allowed her to be more expressive and extroverted than the way she was raised.

Next steps

These five basic takeaways are far from the only ones to consider as you work through your own intercultural situation. If you’re interested in learning more, I encourage you to reach out to me or my fellow panelists. All of us offer different cultural backgrounds and areas of expertise, and would be happy to share our knowledge. I also recommend Andy’s book Global Dexterity, as Yan, Christian, and I have found it to be an instructive, refreshing, and much-needed new look at culture-crossing. Finally, if you think this would be a useful dialogue for your own class, team, or program, and you’re putting together your own panel, please let me know. I’m always happy to chime in where I can be helpful. For now, I wish you the best on your culture crossings!