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.

Monkey Moments: What Should You Do When Culturally Adapting is Impossible?

What beverage do you order with lunch?

In the US, you might have a Coke.

In Germany, you’d probably order a beer.

And in France, perhaps a glass of wine.

For those moving to one of these countries, this is a simple enough behavior to adapt to.

But what happens when the behavior is not that simple? What happens when becoming “one of the locals” is impossible?

One of the Locals

Speaking a foreign language. Learning a special set of skills. Drinking unfiltered water.

Due to their complexity or the body’s own limitations, these are the types of behaviors where adaptation may be more difficult.

Learning a language requires patience, dedication, and time. Not everyone who is living abroad has all of these in abundance, especially if living in the foreign country for only a short period.

In regions of Africa, the handshake requires a special set of skills, because it’s rather elaborate. Without practice, the finger-snapping greetings are difficult to master.

And, in certain cases – like drinking unfiltered water in Africa, for instance – your body may simply not allow you to adapt. Although it’s the tradition in a number of ethnic communities in Africa to offer visitors water to drink, sometimes your health must take precedence over local custom.

And refusing to speak, greet, or drink may provoke monkey moments.

Monkey Moments

Although your inability to adapt may not be by choice, but rather by time, skill, health, or any other restrictive factor, this inability may still provoke monkey moments.

(Remember: a monkey moment is when your foreign nature is revealed to everyone through your actions…or, in some cases, your inactions).

How do you overcome these monkey moments?

If the short duration of your stay doesn’t allow you enough time to learn an entire language, learn the local greetings and short phrases. Doing so will show the locals that you are making an effort to communicate.

Don’t have the skills to master the complex local handshake?

Give it your best shot, and the locals will surely acknowledge you’re trying.

Can’t stomach the water?

Declining the customary drink may cause a monkey moment, but you must make clear that your health is the reason that you decline. Any other reason would likely be considered rude or disrespectful.

So, my advice is three-fold: make an effort, explain yourself when you physically cannot adapt, and respect the local culture.

This is ultimately what a successful cross-cultural relationship comes down to. We’ll talk more about respect next week.