As someone who has spent the last decade helping people work effectively across cultures, I often get asked, “How much do we really have to adapt to other peoples’ cultural differences?”

Do we really need to ask about the weather before we can talk business?

Do we really have to refrain from showing strong emotions in professional settings?

Do we really have to bow/shake hands/ hug/kiss both cheeks when meeting someone for the first time?

As you can tell, the question usually comes when someone encounters a behavior they would be uncomfortable performing. Something about the behavior feels…inauthentic to them, and they are wondering if they really need to perform this behavior in order to make a good impression.

While there’s no need to completely abandon ourselves and totally embody (or imitate) the other culture, it’s impossible for us to remain exactly the same in all situations. Whether we realize it or not, we are all adapting all the time. The way we behave around our closest friends is quite different from how we behave with our children, or with our coworkers, or with strangers. We don’t talk to our parents the same way we talk to our partners. We are all adapting to the various people in our lives multiple times a day, so by adulthood, we are already quite skilled at this. The question is not whether we can adapt, but how much we need to adapt in order to be effective when engaging with others.

My barometer to address this question is a spectrum of authenticity and effectiveness.

Think about a behavior and ask yourself:

Is it authentic (for me)?

Is it effective (in this situation)?

Let’s unpack these a little more:

Authenticity

People across cultures can instantly sense phoniness and are understandably put off by it, especially in business situations.  Imitating a behavior that comes across as phony is no way to build trust in a new environment with new people. If a certain cultural adaptation seems to require you to behave inauthentically, then either don’t do it or only do the parts that can be done authentically.

Effectiveness

If what you’re doing isn’t working, then why do it? All communication has a goal. We need to perform a behavior that will aid us in achieving our goal. When we’re on the phone with that customer service rep, will anger or flattery get us the refund or discount we desire? You may have a default style, but if you could know for certain which behavior the rep would respond positively to (and that may not be your norm), wouldn’t you use it to get what you want?

In this example, we don’t have a way of getting to know that specific customer service rep and can only rely on our past experiences with other service professionals to determine our strategy. But in donor and colleague relationships, we typically learn by observing people over time and adapting to them accordingly, which brings me to my next point: to assess whether something is effective or authentic, you need to know a few things:

  1. Yourself:  You need to possess a level of self-awareness to the extent that you can determine what is authentic for you.
  2. Your Objective: You need to know what you are trying to achieve in this interaction. Are you just trying to buy a sandwich, or are you hoping to forge a business partnership?
  3. Your Environment: You need to have some understanding of what works in this culture, for this individual. You can read books about the culture in advance, but that will only give you a general idea. The deepest learning will be gained from simple observation and reflection.

So, what happens when your authentic behavior is at odds with the effective behavior? The answer is:

Be authentic to the extent that it is effective.

Be effective to the extent that it is authentic.

Everything is on a continuum, so it is seldom a matter of either/or. Also, trial-and-error is part of the intercultural experience; sometimes you don’t know whether something is inauthentic or ineffective until after it happens. It’s OK to make these mistakes and apply your learning to future encounters. That being said, it never hurts to be prepared. Think about some of the major cultural differences that manifest in your common business interactions. Being prepared to adapt to some of the differences and knowing which adaptations you can make authentically will set you up for a more successful encounter.

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