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.

Step 5 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Taking Action by Learning & Sharing

Whether you’re an expat in a foreign country or working with expats in your own, integration requires action.

Successfully managing or working across cultures necessitates planning; not just business planning, but planning for how to react to those all-too-painful monkey moments.

When relocating abroad, your company will likely provide some type of pre-departure cross-cultural skills training. Such guidance can help significantly in adjusting to a new culture. However, cross-cultural training is not guaranteed, nor is it guaranteed to be effective.

Instead, most successful managers take cross-cultural integration into their own hands, navigating the steps of Awareness, Accepting, Adapting, Adopting, and Taking Action, with the last step being the most hands-on.

Taking action involves two action-packed tasks: Learning and Sharing.

We’ll discuss both briefly in this post and cover them in more detail over the next several weeks.

Learning

When you look at all the intricate details of a culture, you might grow overwhelmed with just how much there is to learn. The task seems nearly impossible and seeing it as such can be a setback to integration.

Instead, break down learning into the following three steps so that it seems a little less daunting:

  • Learn Language – Communication is essential to integration, so language learning should be high on your to-do list.
  • Learn Religion – Learning about religion will help you better understand the values and norms of a culture.
  • Learn History – The same goes for learning a country’s history. Some knowledge of your host country’s past will help place some of the local’s traditions and habits in historical context.

Sharing

You shouldn’t try and integrate on your own; in fact, doing so is counterintuitive. The whole point of integrating into a foreign culture is to make connections. That’s where sharing comes in!

  • Seeking Friends – Making friends with the locals will not only take some of the stress off your initial culture shock, but it will also aid in cross-cultural understanding.
  • Sharing Food – Sharing in each other’s food culture is a great way to ease into deeper-rooted cultural differences.
  • Looking for your Zookeeper – Every monkey needs a zookeeper. The best zookeeper is one who may know enough about your culture to help you integrate into their own. They will be your veritable tour guide in this foreign land, as it is their home.

Tune in over the next several weeks, as we’ll discuss learning and sharing in more detail and offer advice on how best to approach each.