Between Two Cultures

How I learnt to Assimilate in the Corporate World

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The recent contentious political climate has sprung several divisive and debatable issues that have long been part of the very fabric of the nation. From discussions on race, religious inclination, economic and politics, none has been more gripping and impassioned as immigration irrespective of one’s political bent. While the discussions have been riveting, I often wonder what the people who are the subject of the narrative and whose voices are seldom heard during the discourse think. More importantly, I am curious to know how current immigrants striving for the American dream (whatever that may be), are navigating the nuances of daily life. For those who happen to find their way into the corporate world, assimilation and the conflicts (be it external or internal) they wrestle within the throws of the corporate construct can be a daunting issue.

Social interactions are vital for human existence and one could argue that they are essential for survival. As humans, we yearn for it constantly and some have suggested it is correlated with one’s degree of happiness. As early as a toddler, we are ushered into it. From seeking attention from our parents as infants and toddlers, to a mother’s worry about her child’s first day of school outcomes, or the social pressures encountered from high school to college, our lives are inundated with the longing for social interactions. This trend usually continues into our professional lives and has become part of the descriptive ideology of a company’s culture we so often hear from the human resource personnel. That interaction is sought after once we join any organization and those corporate pedigrees can influence our careers within the organization. To that effect, we sometimes strategically decide what associations to accept. This is usually the silent narratives for most people irrespective of geographical or social origins. However strategically we may want to be, we are subconsciously drawn to people with similarities to ourselves.

This story is no different for immigrants. While the above narrative may be linear for Americans, that somehow becomes an innuendo for immigrants, one that can be very complex and conflicting. Habits have been formed, personalities developed and yet they must adapt and assimilate into the new culture which is often easier said than done. If one has not immigrated to a new location with vast differences in culture, ideologies, and sometimes language with hopes for greener pastures, then this might seem a distant thought. However, this is intended to invoke discourse sheered with empathy and understanding rather than judgement and expand the culture within our corporate entities.

The corporate rat race is one every professional in the corporate world is familiar with and most are fighting to stay in the race. Social interactions are part of the game and for immigrants; this can be a daunting task navigating the system. Not only do they have to learn and be acquainted with the American culture with a professional stance, they are also wrestling with their inherent cultural ideologies, with a measured balance that can sometimes emanate a quasi-existence within. This can prove tricky for some. If they are too departed from their culture, then authenticity might be called into question; on the other hand, if they are not well assimilated, then they run the risk of being ostracized and not a “cultural fit” and that can be career suicide.

This was my case early on in my career. I often had that feeling of not belonging to the culture and people. For one, I was certain of my intellectual abilities and contributions but seldom added to the conversations around the table. Rather, I found myself more as an observer and often wondered if I was even seen or heard. I listened attentively, paying attention to the casual banter about the weather, the activities of the past weekend or the upcoming weekend, the talk about family, references to shows I was familiar with like Game of Thrones or Greys Anatomy, which offered a window of opportunity to chime in. American classics such as The Godfather or Gone with the wind, which I had no knowledge of usually relegated me to an observer. Phew, those were some awkward moments. In those times, the urge to get up and excuse myself was my knee-jerk reaction. However, with time, I realized if I truly wanted to stay in the game, I needed to stay with and understand the fabric of “small talks”, and secondly, I needed to participate in the conversation and in order to do so, I needed to learn about American social cues. I immersed myself in watching some classics, which I must say, were enjoyable, read books, and kept up with current affairs. I also made friends with colleagues who invited me to outings, parties, and happy hours. I learnt to express my opinions in meetings, give presentations, and most importantly ask for feedback from my peers. I became more confident. I felt seen, heard, and it allowed me to walk with assertion. However, sometimes, I still feel awkward and out of place in new social interactions and that is always a conflicting issue-a dichotomy of identity between two cultures.

A friend shared a similar sentiment during a summer graduate internship. Olga was a graduate pharmacy student in Pennsylvania whom I met during my summer internship. Olga was from Russia but lived in Philadelphia, and like so many, English was her second language. We became close during our intern days and she had shared her fear of public speaking and the painstaking thoughtfulness behind every word or sentence and how anxious that felt. I understood her plight because I could relate. That aspect made her seem reticent or timid but in actuality; she really was not at all. Another friend of mine, Salem, a civil engineer from the UAE also expressed his nerves during presentation with a perpetual fear of forgetfulness in the midst of presentations be it at his job or school. He also shared similar sentiments of feeling out of place and the internal conflicts of trying to stay authentic while embracing his new way of life. These shared experiences are constant struggles for immigrants trying to survive and these challenges add another layer of complexity to their already complex professional lives, one that if not properly managed can be crippling. Yet they are faced with managing such acute nuances with equanimity.

It is important to iterate that many companies have made great strides for diversity and inclusivity within their organizations. That includes going beyond the boundaries of race, gender, and culture and extending into sexual orientation, religion, and ideologies. While these have been great, corporations need to do more to put certain systems in place to maintain and encourage these differences. The most effective organizations have usually been those whose leaders have the uncanny ability to make each employee feel seen and heard. Organizations should strive and encourage minorities to seek leadership on projects and other functions within the organization, which can allow immigrants to lend a different perspective to problem solving. Programs designed to foster cross-cultural discourse and activities such as potlucks, intermural sporting events, showcases celebrating different cultures represented within the organization, and programs aimed at promoting minorities’ engagement in leadership activities can be beneficial to the organization. For instance, at the beginning of each meeting, an employee can be tasked with giving a five-minute verbal or PowerPoint presentation about himself or herself. This was a strategy I encountered during my internship days at each departmental meeting and was a great way to get to know more about members of our department both regionally and internationally. Each member was required to list an interesting fact about themselves during their presentations. These programs can help immigrants lean in. In a similar fashion, companies should also aim to increase diverse representation at C-executive level.

Ultimately, immigrants will have to take charge of their careers and not let fear dictate that trajectory. For those who find themselves in similar situations, conflicted by their own cultural construct, they should immerse themselves within the organization and its people. It is better to stand and listen rather than flee and hide. Here are a few tips that may help in navigating this quandary.

· There will always be people who are interested in your story just as you are of theirs. Tell your story and listen as well.

· Network horizontally and vertically. One of the greatest career decisions I ever made was networking and through that, I gained a mentor who has been instrumental in my career trajectory. Seek them. You will eventually find one who trusts in your abilities.

· Be proactive. Offer to help where needed. Kindness of any form is good and that increases your visibility among your peers. Present your creative ideas to your managers, peers and even the HR personnel. Your idea might be what the company may need.

· Lastly, get feedback from trusted peers and colleagues. Discuss your concerns and fears with a trusted partner/colleague or mentor. They usually can understand and may provide insights you never thought of.

When people think of diversity, they think of race or culture. However, when diversity includes, race, culture, sexual orientation, gender, and ideas and when we marry all of these elements, it makes for an enriching working environment.

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