Cultural Must-Adapts: When Is It Mandatory to Adapt to Cultural Norms?

Do you remember our four groupings of social norms – folkways, mores, taboos, and laws?

If not, then here’s our handy chart to recall how each of these norms applies to culture:

norms

As you can imagine, failing to queue up in Britain would not be looked upon as severely as, say, going topless at a beach in America. And this is due to the severity of the norm groupings to which each of these actions belong.

Folkways<Mores<Taboos<Laws

How strict is each cultural norm group?

Folkways are the softest social norms. While you have a choice whether or not to adapt to folkways, failing to adapt won’t lead to ostracism; it will simply lead some in your new cultural environment to consider you a bit rude.

One example: wearing formal attire in a business environment is a European folkway. A suit and tie in Europe is the uniform of choice for men.

So, when an American male manager walks into a business meeting with his European counterparts wearing a casual polo shirt and wrinkled slacks, while this casual attire is, of course, not forbidden, it may result in a negative perception of said businessman as a cross-cultural business leader.

This is one example of a folkway that you can choose to adapt or not, but in making that choice, consider how it’s perceived.

Mores define right versus wrong within a culture, so there is more pressure to adapt to this type of social norm.

For instance, if a female manager travels to a conservative country, and she comes from one where feminine business attire is much more liberal, she may feel pressured – or even be asked – to alter her attire, as it may be considered inappropriate or revealing, based on the culture’s mores.

This is the difference between “right vs rude” and “right vs wrong”. Again, you can choose to adapt or not, but in the process, you may be considered “rude” or “wrong” by the cultural standards of your new colleagues.

Mandatory Adaptions

When it comes to the last two social norm groups – taboos and laws -, you must adapt.

Remember, taboos define what’s forbidden, while laws define what’s illegal. If these norms don’t align with your own, and you believe there’ll be some “wiggle-room”, simply because you’re a foreigner, then you’re very much mistaken.

“Sorry, I didn’t know; I’m foreign,” might work when breaking a queue, but it certainly won’t work when breaking a law.

You must accept that other cultures have values that you must observe if you choose to live there. And if you can’t accept these deeply entrenched values and norms, then stand by your principles and don’t move there.

Because one thing is certain in building cross-cultural relationships: you should not expect an entire culture to bend to your will.

When Cultures Collide: A Profound Conflict of Values

We’ve talked about what can happen when physical or time limitations prevent full cross cultural integration. We’ve talked about what can happen when your own discomfort with another culture’s norms gets in the way of adapting.

But what happens when there are certain behaviors and norms you don’t want to adapt to due to your own deep-seated cultural values?

This is where cross cultural issues can cause some real friction.

The Headscarf

One example is, of course, the cultural norm of wearing a headscarf.

In some Muslim countries, it is not government mandated for women to wear a headscarf (hijab). Unless you’re visiting a mosque, it’s an optional behavior, for native people and for tourists.

However, if you visit or work in a Muslim country where women must wear a headscarf by law, like Saudi Arabia, then you are faced with a norm rooted in cultural values that directly contradict your own.

While wearing a headscarf is easy enough to do, it’s the values that the headscarf symbolize that many Westerners reject. Freedom of choice is the foundation of Western culture.

If you refuse to adapt to the practice in a country for which it is law to wear the headscarf, or in a country which, more or less, abides by the religious practice, you may not ever fully integrate into the culture, and you may face legal punishment.

What do you do in this case?

To Adapt or Not to Adapt

To adapt or not to adapt, that is the question.

If you are someone who is living and working abroad, and you’re interested in fully integrating into the culture (and I’m guessing you are, if you’re reading this blog), then when facing conflicts like this one, where you feel you will betray your own values by adapting to another’s, you have two choices:

  1. Avoid the situation, altogether; or,
  2. Explain your rationale

In choosing #1, you would refrain from travel to countries where hijabs or burkas are required.

The latter choice is more of a gamble. You must explain your rationale in a way that does not diminish your foreign counterparts’ cultural norm or tradition.

And no matter how diplomatic you are about it, you’re assuming that your foreign counterpart will respect your rationale…which won’t always be the case. 

Not Optional

Some adaptions may not be optional. Awareness and acceptance won’t be enough in situations where cultural values and norms run deep.

So, when living and working in a foreign culture, do your homework beforehand and come prepared to adapt your behavior regarding strict norms and values, whether they fall in line with yours or not.

Respect Culture: How to Respond to Norms that Make You Uncomfortable

What does respect mean to you?

In the face of disagreement, in the face of, perhaps, discomfort or even anger, what does it mean to respect someone with whom you do not share values or norms?

An example:

You’re Japanese, and you’ve moved to Spain. The Spanish are a warm, open and friendly culture. A kiss on both cheeks is a common greeting, whether you’re a friend or a stranger being met for the first time.

This social norm is not only one you’re not used to; it’s one that makes you incredibly uncomfortable.

What do you do?

Discomfort

I actually know a Japanese woman who struggled with this exact scenario.

She was the wife of a diplomat who had recently transferred to Spain. I met her at a language school.

Not only did she grow up in a culture that is as far removed from Spain as it possibly can be, she was also born to an aristocratic family, so her upbringing was even more disciplined than most. From childhood, she had been taught that public spaces and situations were not the place for physical human contact.

Remember: the Japanese greeting is a bow. A handshake is even too intimate. So, imagine then transitioning into a country in which men and women engage in this public display of affectionate greeting.

A kiss on both cheeks seemed too much for her to bear.

Tolerate, Comply and/or Explain

According to LQ Williams of Owlcation:

“Tolerance is the recognition of the universal human rights and freedoms of others… and the recognition of the value of differences without judgement.”

Tolerance, in essence, is respecting diversity, the world over. Despite feeling uncomfortable with certain cultural norms, you can still demonstrate your tolerance and respect for the culture by complying with other cultural behaviors.

In my Japanese friend’s case, she was taking this step: she was actively trying to learn the language.

Lastly, if you find yourself between a rock and a hard place – that is, between an attempt to integrate into the culture and your discomfort with some of this culture’s social norms and values – then explaining yourself goes a long way.

As Core Languages notes: “Often, just trying to be culturally sensitive is appreciated. Even if you don’t execute well, you’ve taken the time to learn about another and invested in a relationship.”

Who knows – maybe somewhere down the road, you’ll become comfortable with those norms that were initially a roadblock for you, just like my Japanese friend did.

Instead of only accepting the norm, she chose to overcome her deep level of physical discomfort and adapt.

These are some of the battles you may face when living and working in a foreign country. It’s up to you where you draw the line.

But know that in some cases, if you draw the line too close to your own cultural comfort, you may be impeding yourself from successful cross cultural integration.

Apples & Oranges: Understanding Adverse Reactions to Culture

Last week, we talked about how important it is to successful cross cultural management to accept the culture into which you are integrating.

This isn’t always easy. Sometimes, you’ll dislike or disagree with certain aspects of the culture. But disagreement doesn’t have to mean disdain.

You can disagree and still respect that this society might see or do things differently than you. And that’s okay.

Why Do We React Adversely?

Any initial adverse reactions to a foreign culture can probably be credited to discomfort.

This new world into which you are entering isn’t familiar and may not offer all the amenities of home (and if they do, they’re likely not packaged the same, so may be hard to find).

Home is easy. It’s familiar. It’s unsurprising.

You might start feeling nostalgic for home, which is part of the natural stages of culture shock.

It’s understandable. You likely know no one in this new world. All your friends are back home. It’s disconcerting to transition into a completely different life without anyone to lean on. Especially when that life and the culture’s norms and values are so different than your own.

When moving to Spain, a Japanese person might dislike the loud restaurants and the encroachment on their personal space when greeting, and in Japan, a Spanish person might dislike the culture’s formal behavior and traditions.

But to move forward and conquer that initial adverse reaction, the foreigner must understand that just because something is different than what he or she knows does not mean it’s bad.

Apples & Oranges

I grew up in Africa. My dad worked there. As a child, the thing I missed most from back home in Switzerland was apples. The fruit on hand was monkey-bread from the baobab.

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Despite missing apples, monkey-bread was still appetizing.

My point is that accepting another culture as it is does not mean you must disavow the things you like back home. But it does mean you shouldn’t categorize things in your host culture as “good” or “bad”; you should make an effort not to compare it with what you know.

Accepting means to refrain from judging the differences and look at them with a clear and open mind. They may be unfamiliar and strange to you, but the sun sets beautifully over the African savannah, just as it does back home.

Adapting

Accepting encompasses all aspects of a foreign culture. But accepting is just the first step of cross cultural integration.

As a manager in a foreign culture, you must also adapt to some of the culture’s behaviors and social norms if you want to integrate successfully. Adapting is specific to the visible parts of culture, the behavioral aspects.

I’m talking the dress code, the way the culture greets each other, what and when they eat. These are just a few examples of how you must adapt, which we’ll talk more about next week.

The Roots of the Baobab: The Invisible Part of Culture

The upper baobab – the above-ground part of culture – is what cultural books and guides often cover.

Pick up any book on the business culture of any single European nation, and you’ll find greatly detailed lists of behaviors, dress, etc. – you know, the visible parts of culture we talked about last week.

But the baobab’s canopy is only part of the magnificent tree of life. Buried below the African soil, the roots branch out into an enormous structure that you cannot see; one that is even more important to cross-cultural integration.

Invisible to the Naked Eye

Just as the roots of the baobab are hidden extensions of the tree of life, the roots of a culture are often hidden too.

But it’s worth digging up the soil to examine these roots in order to understand why certain cultural behaviors exist and how they developed.

If you’re working in a cross-cultural environment and/or immigrating to a foreign land, it’s pretty clear why this understanding is important. It’s only when you understand a culture’s underlying values that you will be able to accept and adapt enough to integrate into the culture.

baobab

The Swiss

For instance, the Swiss are punctual. This is demonstrated in their behavior. This “always on time” mentality is the above-ground baobab – the visible part of culture.

What are the roots – the invisible part?

The Swiss’ values are. The culture’s concept of time is the invisible part. Time is valued in Switzerland, and that valuation is made manifest in the general behaviors of society.

The American

Another example: Americans are self-promoting. They are not often modest about their success, and some often display it or announce it, so that others know just how successful they are.

“Part of the beauty of me is that I am very rich.” – Donald Trump, March 2011, in an interview with Good Morning America

Self-promotion is one branch of their above-ground baobab, the visible part of their culture.

And the invisible part?

Individuality is deeply ingrained in American values. It extends in the roots beneath the earth which grow into the branch of self-promotion. Being able to “stand out” in some way – be it with wealth, accomplishment, or success of any kind – is an integral part of American culture.

The Roots Grow

In any cultural baobab, the wispy branches (folkways), the sturdier branches (mores), and the trunk (taboos, laws) all grow from these well-watered roots of a culture’s values.

Values create a culture’s behaviors, norms, and traditions in a way that is not always obvious. But if you look closely enough at a culture, you can better understand how its norms and values are tied. Arriving at this understanding will greatly aid you in cross-cultural integration.

The Baobab Theory of Culture

Most folks who are interested in culture have heard about the Iceberg Theory.

The phrase was coined by Ernest Hemingway and applies to his style of writing – a.k.a. the theory of omission. But it also applies to culture.

The idea is that the deeper meaning of a story is below the surface. Or, in the theme of our blog, the deeper meaning of a culture…

Like an iceberg, that which we see of culture only makes up a small portion of the whole. What lies below is even more astounding and impactful.

But I’d like to expand on the Iceberg Theory and compare culture to a baobab.

The Baobab

We talked last week about the mythical baobab tree.

For the purpose of this theory, the baobab’s huge trunk and canopy will represent the visible part of culture.

Traditional clothing, food, art, architecture, language, gestures, appearance, behavior – this is all represented in the visible part of the baobab.

Behavior is often regulated by norms. Folkways, mores, taboos and laws are all represented above the surface.

The small branches at the edges of the canopy represent folkways, the most flexible of the norms. As the branches extend toward the trunk, they become thicker and more rigid. These are a society’s mores. They’re stricter and often based in deeper values.

And the trunk, itself? This represents a culture’s taboos and laws. Punishment for those who do not adhere to these two sets of norms is the most severe. Society members must comply, or they’ll be ostracized or imprisoned.

Know Before Traveling

While knowing the baobab – or the visible part of a culture – is only the beginning of full-on cross-cultural integration, this basic intro would probably be enough for brief travel to a foreign country or a short business trip.

For instance, if you’re traveling to Greece, it would be nice to know that their official working day ends during the early afternoon. Moreover, when formal events are held at work, they are often attended by only employees of the same rank.

Or if you’re on business in the UK, you’ll find that business culture there is quite direct. You’ll also find that the Brits are often on first-name basis with fellow colleagues and superiors. This may seem in stark contrast to the stereotypical image of their formality.

On the other hand, if business takes you to Portugal, you might be addressed very formally as “doutor” (doctor), whether you have a doctorate or not. Everyone with a university degree is honored with this title. You’ll also find that nepotism isn’t an issue in Portugal, as business and personal relationships are often intertwined.

Below the Surface

While all of these aspects are visible parts of the cultural baobab, this begs the question: what lies below the earth?

In the baobab’s case, an enormous network of roots spread into the soil as a culture’s underlying invisible values. We’ll talk about these roots next week.

When in Rome…How to Adjust to Cross-Cultural Norms 

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

We’ve all heard this motto, and if you want to integrate into a foreign country, it’s true…to a point.

The social norms we’ve talked about within the past few weeks are integral to culture.

Without norms, there’s no conformity. And without conformity, there is no culture.

But, when you take the giant leap that is living in a foreign culture, how much are you expected to conform? How much do you want to conform?

What are you willing to “give up” in order to fit in?

Do As The Romans Do

Like many things in life, the answer to these questions depend on how much you personally want to change to fit in. The degree of your integration also depends on what you are willing to accept about your new culture and what you’re unwilling to adapt to or adopt.

Accepting is the first step when deciding just how much to “do as the Romans do.” And when you take Accepting certain social norms a step further to Adapting, you’ll have an even more successful integration…but this may depend upon your comfort with the social norms to which you’re adapting.

Consider the level of severity of the norms. Accepting and adapting to laws and taboos are a definite must if you wish to integrate properly, because they are the more severe social norms.

To a lesser but very real extent, one should adapt to mores and folkways, as well. However, the latter two have less severe consequences.

…But Don’t Overdo It

While adapting, you might be at risk for over-adapting.

In a Harvard Business Review article by Andy Molinsky, a Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School, Molinsky notes that he often sees individuals over-adapt cross-culturally in business culture and in academia. He calls it “over-switching.”

“Individuals attempt to adapt their behavior to match a particular culture but end up pushing too far, making larger mistakes than if they had just stayed true to themselves,” he writes.

When adjusting to the often less formal U.S. standards in academia, he sees students from more formal cultures “inaccurately calibrate” to being more informal than standard U.S. norms in class, in interviews, and in cover letters.

For example, Molinsky writes, “Students from countries where self-promotion is taboo learn that it’s required in the U.S., but don’t quite understand to what extent self-promotion is acceptable.”

They then lay it on thick, so to speak, and overly self-promote, in an attempt to adapt.

Awareness is key to knowing not to overswitch. And by Taking Action and looking for a zookeeper to guide you, you’ll be able to calibrate your adaption more precisely and “do as the Romans do” even more naturally.

The 4 Stages of Culture Shock 

Planning to move to a new country, integrate into a new culture? 

Will you remember that you can’t jaywalk in Switzerland? That it’s taboo for women to drive in Saudi Arabia? That European nudity mores are far less strict than those in the U.S. or many other places?  

Attempting to adjust to cultural norms might be surprising at first. In fact, you might get full-on culture shock. 

What is culture shock? 

The SHOCK 

Culture shock is a disorientating feeling of unfamiliarity that travelers or those integrating into another culture often experience. It comes in waves, and while it will dissipate after years of living in a foreign land, it may never leave entirely. You’re bound to continue discovering things about a new culture long after you’ve spent time there. 

But there are stages of shock that lead to some semblance of Acceptance. 

Stage 1: The Honeymoon Period 

When you first arrive somewhere, you will probably experience a “honeymoon period.” You’ll be in love with most things and curious, because everything is new. You won’t know the harsher sides of the culture or the faux pas you may soon commit or the criticisms you may face. 

Global Perspectives describes this period as follows: “The first stage of culture shock is often overwhelmingly positive during which travelers become infatuated with the language, people and food in their new surroundings.” 

Sounds beautiful. But…

Stage 2: The Pressure Cooker 

After a time, the frustrations slip in. Just like with any relationship, you start noticing the culture’s flaws. Things about the culture may upset you.  

They don’t queue up properly, they don’t arrive to meetings on time, no one speaks YOUR language.  

Remember, you’re viewing this culture through your own cultural lens, not theirs. So, all of these cultural differences build up in the pressure cooker and start to shock you. 

Stage 3: The Conformation  

While you can always increase the pressure by butting heads with your new culture, you could also try embracing it. Conforming – at least somewhat – to a new culture is essential to cross-cultural integration. 

Start learning the language and become familiar with the world around you. This will often lead to… 

Stage 4: Acceptance 

Acceptance is not the final stage in cross-cultural integration. But it’s one of the most essential stages in overcoming culture shock. Once you start to accept the culture you’re living in as it is, you’ll no longer feel quite so much pressure or frustration as when the shock first electrocuted you. 

But how and what social norms and values to conform to and accept? We’ll talk more about that next week.