Achieving cultural fit when you move to a new country

I’m sure we’ve all experienced workplaces where we just don’t fit in.  Our cultures and values are poles apart from those of our employer.  I wrote recently about what you should do in such circumstances, with a recent study suggesting that choosing whether to stand out or fit in can often depend on where you sit in the structure of your organization, and the degree of cultural alignment between you and the firm.

For instance, if culturally you stand out from your colleagues, then if you want to succeed you will need to integrate well with the structure of your organization.  Alternatively, if you’re not a part of well established groups at work, then you will need to have stronger cultural fit with your colleagues.

A recent study suggests that job crafting might be a way to mitigate that.  For instance, participants who felt misalignment but who were able to craft their job were much less likely to report low engagement levels, and their performance remained steady.  Similarly, those misfits who were able to retain a good work-life balance were also largely unaffected.

Cultural fit

Of course, such cultural fit is not confined to corporate level, with similar issues equally prescient when people move to a new country.  It’s a topic touched on a recent paper by BYU, which examined the way language can be used effectively by those moving to new climes.  The study suggests that speaking exactly like a native isn’t required in order to be accepted by the native population.  Indeed, this can often do more harm than good.

“A lot of language teaching focuses on doing things according to local conventions,” the authors say. “Our research kind of challenges the idea that this is always necessary by noticing that there are times when a visiting foreigner is not expected to follow conventions and, in such situations, following conventions too closely can actually be seen as unusual.”

The study saw American students tracked as they interned in Japanese companies.  They were particularly keen to monitor their use of Japanese formalities in an attempt to assimilate into their workplace culture.

The study found that the interns were often regarded as a foreigner regardless of how well they spoke the Japanese language.  What’s more, the best strategy is to accept this reality rather than trying to fight it.

“It’s not always about whether or not you’re using the language correctly, but if you’re comfortable being who you are,” the authors say. “If you try to fit into the local convention so much that you step away from who you are, you’re not going to fit in as well, even if you’re using the language ‘correctly.'”

True to yourself

The researchers suggest that many of the interns tried too hard to fit in, and ended up appearing unnaturally polite.  Despite their best efforts, all they really managed to do was alienate their hosts.

By contrast, another group of interns was more businesslike, and whilst they certainly weren’t rude, they didn’t go to such lengths to ingratiate themselves.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, this group were also seen as outsiders on a social level, but they were no less so than their more enthusiastic peers.

In terms of integration, the best result came from an intern who intentionally used the language incorrectly.  He played up the fact that he was a foreigner, and his more lighthearted approach endeared him to his hosts and enabled a more personal bond to be formed.

It’s a fascinating finding, as I’m currently learning Czech myself, and a great deal of attention is given in our classes to getting the grammar and pronunciation just right.  Maybe it’s better just to give things a go and not take yourself, and your hosts, too seriously.

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