This article from the Harvard Business Review discusses the difficulties faced by many immigrants when adapting to a new culture. He introduces the concept of “over-switching” – going to far from your normal behaviour when attempting to behave in a culturally-appropriate manner.
Adapt to a New Culture – but Don’t Go Too Far
by Andy Molinsky, Harvard Business Review
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.