Why You Shouldn’t Adapt to Other Cultures

davidlivermore | November 6th, 2013 10 Comments

Cultural intelligence doesn’t mean being a cultural chameleon. Sometimes when I attempt a Japanese bow, I notice my Japanese counterpart extending her arm to shake my hand. It’s a bit like a middle-aged adult trying to act, dress, and talk like a hipster. It doesn’t turn out well for anyone.

When should we adapt to another culture and when is doing so inauthentic or worse yet, insulting? Clearly there are times we must adapt to different cultures. That’s at the crux of cultural intelligence. But is adaptation always the right choice? Here are a few questions I ask myself when making that decision:

1. Is it a tight or loose culture?
Michelle Gelfand from the University of Maryland studied “Tight vs. Loose” cultures. This refers to how strong the social norms are within a culture. It’s a society’s level of tolerance for people who deviate from its preferred norms.

Places like Japan and Saudi Arabia are “tight” cultures. They emphasize conformity to their dominant social values and norms. In contrast, Thailand and The Netherlands are “loose” cultures, where the emphasis is upon you behaving as you wish, as long as it doesn’t infringe upon someone else being able to do so as well.

When deciding if and how much you should adapt to a different culture, reflect on how tight or loose it is. Look at the research on the 33 nations included in the Gelfand et al. study. And use your own insights and network to get a sense of the expectations upon whether you should adapt your behavior.

2. Am I Compromising Myself?
I have a set of values and convictions that I’m not willing to compromise just to fit in with another culture. I suspect the same is true for you. Some people would be compromising their health or religious beliefs to participate in the excessive drinking that sometimes occurs at Chinese business dinners. And some companies, such as Bloomberg, forbid employees from accepting gifts of any kind, including having dinner paid for lest it compromise journalistic integrity. That policy runs against the grain of the cultural values of hospitality and gift-giving in many places around the world.

But cultural intelligence is not simply play-acting and performing based upon others’ preferences and expectation. It has to be rooted in a strong sense of your self. You need an inner compass to help you discern when adapting goes beyond your core values.

3. How can I best express my intentions?
By this point, the inevitable question is, Then why don’t we just let everyone be themselves? It sounds great. But in reality, your behavior might mean one thing to you and an entirely different thing to someone else. For one person, “being yourself” might mean being blunt and speaking boldly. To them, that might express conviction and passion. But for someone who has been socialized differently, it might come off as rude and aggressive. So we have to ask whether the behaviors we use accurately communicate the intentions we want to convey.

Many say it’s just a matter of respecting each other and allowing an inclusive space for our differences. But even what we consider inclusive and respectful is deeply embedded in cultural norms and behaviors. Good intentions are not enough. Behavior is the way people perceive intentions. And the behaviors that most strongly communicate are less how you pass your business card and whether you kiss, bow, or shake. And they’re more whether you’re willing to adapt the process for how you get work done, exercise flexibility in your policies, timelines, etc.

4. Will retaining our differences actually make us stronger?
Soon Ang and I are researching and writing an upcoming book on culturally intelligent innovation. Diverse teams innovate more than homogeneous teams do if there are high levels of CQ among the diverse team members. Therefore, if everyone tries to be the same, the team loses one of the most powerful drivers of innovation—the differences!

On the other hand, if every team member insists on “being themselves” and no one adapts, the team sits in gridlock. (U.S. congress anyone?!). Culturally intelligent teams draw upon their differences to find a third space where they can create innovative solutions that stem from the power of different perspectives and approaches.

Andy Molinski’s new book, Global Dexterity is an excellent resource that takes all of this much further. It provides research-based, practical ways to improve CQ Action—your ability to effectively adapt your behavior for intercultural environments.

When have you adapted too much? Not enough? What questions would you add to the list?

10 Responses to Why You Shouldn’t Adapt to Other Cultures

  1. I hope people read the blog and not just the title/tweet. Should be “when you shouldn’t adapt …”. I thought you had lost your mind for a minute when I saw the tweet. :-)

    • Sorry to cause you panic Cody. But the title was meant to be a bit provocative to challenge the notion that adapting is always the way to go.

      • This is a very interesting topic – when to or not to adapt. Is there any research related to this topic? Are you interesting in doing research on this topic?

  2. Thanks Claudia. There’s some research on this in terms of our initial findings related to what CQ Action (behavioral CQ) does and doesn’t mean. And Andy Molinsky has some research on this as it relates to behavioral flexibility.

    But we’re definitely interested in more research on this topic. In particular, looking at this from your field of hospitality would be extremely useful. E.g., when is a hotel staff accommodating someone from a different culture based upon their appearance/address etc. and when does it come off as stereotyping? I’m sure you have rich ideas of your own. Let’s explore it!

    • Thank you for the thought-provoking and very timely post. I am actually conducting research on the similar topic in education and was looking for the support of the idea that adaptation is not always the way to go. To summarize my preliminary finding is a popular form, international students come to the programs that promise ‘Anglo-American’ style business education, including friendly and sometimes blunt and challenging instructors, but the instructors try to accommodate diverse learning styles and be culturally sensitive (and nowadays, intelligent as well:) and so nobody’s happy. Faculty feel that they are sometimes forced to compromise their teaching standards being too lenient on discipline, academic integrity and the promptness of the assignment submissions, and the students feel they don’t get ‘real’ experienced instructors, just someones who’s not sure what s/he is doing. If you are interested in exploring this topic, please feel free to get in touch with me.

      • Fascinating Natalie! Thanks for sharing. And we’re definitely interested in learning more about what you find through your research! The issue of teaching a diverse group of students is a topic that I relate to personally and am often asked about!

  3. When working in a cross-cultural team, the ability to learn and adapt is what builds trust. You may start during the ‘forming’ stage by being curious, asking questions and experimenting with new cultural practices. As trust builds during the ‘storming’ stage you should be able to deepen the conversation about specific behaviors that are causing performance issues. The resolution of how we respect and embrace cultural differences is an indication that you’ve entered the ‘norming’ stage and well on your way to creating a high ‘performing’ team.

  4. As a subpoint to #2 (Am I compromising myself), I ask myself whether it’s my place to speak up against something that I believe violates human rights regardless of the cultural norms. For example, if certain groups are exploited or if women are discriminated, does my brief sojourn in a place give me the right to challenge what is often a century’s old practice.

    This creates a great deal of internal dissonance. I think there are certain values that need to be aimed at universally. But I also know that I can easily mix together my personal preferences and values with what I determine should be universal for everyone.

    You spoke at a leadership conference I attended awhile back and you got me thinking about this then. Thanks for your continued thoughtful approach to these difficult, timely topics.

  5. When I first came to the U.S. the challenge I faced was acculturating vs. compromising. I truly felt that in some ways my value system kept me rigid from adopting to behaviors that I first perceived as unacceptable.
    It took me awhile to understand what I should keep as my values and what cultural norms were much less controversial and simpler to adapt. I think by doing so I kept my own self respect and in many ways gained the respect of others.

  6. Hi David – Excellent post. Nearly all of my intercultural workshops start off with the same discussion (and end with it too) This is a challenge sometimes in India because I get individuals asking me questions like, “What is the right way, or the right behaviour?” or “How can I match my cultural orientation to my US team.” I have to spend a considerable amount of time, convincing them of the value of cultural diversity. I especially like the part about finding ways to express your true intentions. With regard to compromising the self – I make this a discussion about negotiable and non-negotiable values. I like the world negotiate because its communicates a flexibility dependent on the situation. Where non-negotiable are those things that regardless of the cultural situation you are in, you do not adapt or change. I would love to know more about your book and any research on the link between culture diversity in an organization and their ability to innovate. Thanks!

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