Losing yourself between cultures

One of the harder parts of crossing cultures is walking the fine line between having your mind opened to many different ways of doing things and losing your own self in the process. Indeed, if it is true that “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know,” then it is not too hard to see that at some point, you might slide down the slippery slope to where you don’t even know what you know anymore.

Perhaps this sounds extreme? Consider something as basic as how we communicate. Do you “tell it like it is?” Or do you “beat around the bush?” In much of the U.S., speaking frankly is seen as preferable to dancing around a topic in the hopes that the other party will pick up on your inferred message. In those places, direct communication is viewed positively: You might not like what the other person has to say, but at least you’ll know how she thinks. It’s clear, transparent, fair, straightforward, and efficient. Those who speak this way, in these places, can gain esteem because people will see them as trustworthy and competent.

But in many other parts of the world (not to mention the U.S.), speaking directly triggers the opposite reaction. It is viewed as immature, hostile, mean, unartful, and impatient. Because it puts the speaker’s need to be understood ahead of the listener’s need to save face, it is also considered selfish. Thus, rather than earning esteem, the direct speaker will lose it. To be successful in these environments, she would need to hint, refer obliquely to problem areas, and put people’s delicate feelings first. She would need to be mindful of existing hierarchies, internal politics, and the impact of her words on those relationships. By deftly maneuvering between the lines, she would be seen as trustworthy and competent.

Speaking from experience, it can be very uncomfortable to go from a place that promotes indirect communication after being raised in a direct culture. When I moved to Minnesota as a young adult, I was astonished to be seen as forceful, harsh, abrasive, and lacking tact – not at all the characteristics which had defined me in my home state of Arizona, where I had been seen as more of a goody-two-shoes introvert. I struggled to adapt because I found the social prerogative to “be nice” suffocating, yet eventually, I found a way to be myself without alienating people.

The bigger shock came when I returned to Arizona after six years and saw my “own” culture from the outside. My finely-honed ability to communicate indirectly was now viewed as being passive aggressive (the worst possible character flaw); the hard-won reticence and subtlety that had been so essential to earning trust and building relationships for the previous half-decade was now seen as shifty and indecisive.

It was disorienting to be out of my skin now that I was back home, but worse, it was distressing to understand the required communication style and yet feel unable to implement it authentically. I knew what I needed to do in my home state, and had done it quite naturally in the past, yet after adapting during my time in a different culture, I now felt “too different” to change back.

This phenomenon is not limited to my college sojourn in the Midwest. Andy Molinsky, a management professor at Brandeis University, wrote a very helpful book on the topic called Global Dexterity: How to Adopt Your Behavior across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process. In it, he describes many situations in which individuals from a variety of backgrounds struggle to align their inner selves with the demands of the new culture. He suggests that adaptation is less a matter of identifying what a culture prefers and then doing that, than it is about finding a place on the continuum where one’s style overlaps with the style of the new culture. In other words, he proposes that rather than attempting to change oneself whole cloth, one simply needs to nudge the behavior in the direction of the other culture to make it more effective.

Had I read this book back in 2006, it would have accelerated my journey up the learning curve, as I could have taken some initial small steps instead of waiting for the big beautiful moment when I would suddenly feel at home again. And yet, as instructive and reassuring as this book would have been, it could not have taken me all the way toward answering the deeper problem underlying my feeling of being out of my own skin: the question of who I really was. For the indirect/direct communication dilemma was just one example. I was also wrestling with other differences in assumptions about what was appropriate, how relationships functioned, what we should be able to expect from people, what we should want, and even what life was about. Global Dexterity is designed to help globe/culture-trotters swing between cultures with authenticity and agility; knowing what the centering point is amid all of that spinning has to come from within.

An intercultural life is a never-ending journey that exposes us to differences from without that continue to reconfigure us from within. Like waves eroding and reshaping a shore, crossing cultures irrevocably changes us; yet unlike the sandy beach, we are not passive recipients of the tide. Through self-learning, mindfulness, quality resources, and practice, we can gain a firmer toe-hold in our own identities and expand our repertoire of culturally-appropriate adaptations. The key is to not assume that this process is something to be conquered alone. Many intercultural experts with a diverse range of expertise are available to provide customized coaching, personal development tools, and support. So, check out Global Dexterity, and while you’re at it, consider reaching out to a skilled professional for some conversation.

You might be surprised to discover that your voice has been there all along.

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