Dear AAPAAN: How do you blend into the American community, especially in the work environment? –Cecilia

Cecilia:

Your question raises a very complex topic.  To blend in, my simple advice is to go out of your way to spend time with your co-workers.  Do a bit of chitchat each day talking about work and non-work.  Have lunch together.  Occasionally do something together out of the office.

By “blending in,” I assume you mean blend into a largely white American culture.  Your question implies you are a recent immigrant to the US.  There are issues with even a native born “blending in” and even harder for a non-native to do so.  The degree of underlying cultural and racial prejudice ranges from benign and subtle to overt and in-your-face.  The deeper question is whether we, as Asian-American, should blend in or ask to be accepted for what we are.    

In general, the closer you can think, talk and behave like the “typical American,” the better you’ll blend in.  This is a huge challenge if you’re not brought up in America.  Even if you are, you still may not look like you belong.  That’s why every Asian-American is familiar with the question “where are you from?”

To blend in socially, you’ll need to be knowledgeable and conversant with social norms, in-trends, American version of history, slang … etc.  And behave with the accepted range of social attitudes.  That’s a tall task but you can sort of fake it by being pleasant, low key and not opinionated.

You would think that in the work environment, the task is easier.  It might be easier in some ways and harder in others.  In addition to social norms, in the business environment you also have to blend in with the company culture (which will be different at each company).  

First, you can never separate out social interactions at work completely.  For example, the seemingly waste of time chitchats among co-workers actually serve a useful purpose in engendering a sense of belonging to a common trusting community.  Having lunch together and being able to relax can be a very important part of team building.  In some organizations, I suspect social interactions may be crucial to advancing into the upper echelons.  For example, if you don’t play golf with your boss, he may not get to know you and feel you belong in the “club”.

Secondly, corporate culture is overlaid on top of social culture.  Every company has its core philosophies that influence how and who makes decisions, how work is organized (i.e. who is responsible for what), how much accountability and what is right and what is wrong, accepted behavior … etc.  To “blend in” here, you will need a thorough understanding and acceptance of the company philosophy.  For example, an Australian working for a multi-national company was identified as a potential future global leader.  For his first international assignment he was made a manager in one of the company’s Japanese Affiliates.  There he worked for a Japanese boss.  In Australia he learned that his success comes from being forward and challenging everyone openly.  This behavior created a great deal of tension in the team because this was not the Japanese way to get things done.  He failed to blend in.  His boss pulled him aside (and in the typical Japanese indirect manner) told him that “nails that stick up are pounded down.”  He got the message to tone it down and expressive his opinions differently.

To blend in or not? That’s the question.  It’s a personal choice of how far to go.  Too much and you might be called a “banana” or “Twinkie.”  Too little and you are labeled a foreigner.  

 

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