I grew up in a small town in Texas.In fact, it was so small back then that there was nothing but open fields for two hours in every direction of the town. The Indian population was negligible, so I pretty much had two choices when I moved there: either relate to my Indian background and stand out at school, or learn the ways of my American counterparts and blend right into the preteen society.
Naturally, I tried very hard to become completely American, but unknowingly I always attached myself to my Indian identity a tad more. It meant I was taught not to question the choices of my parents and elders, and obedience was seen as a sign of respect. Although I wasn’t good at this at home (being the more rebellious child), I unconsciously gravitated towards this etiquette whenever I was at school, in social gatherings, and eventually at my workplace after I graduated college.
While I may have asked my parents a dozen “why’s” each day, at work I was quiet. I sought to finish the tasks at hand, not ask questions, and not question the decisions of my managers. If they wanted a PowerPoint in a certain format, maybe that meant they knew best! Who was I to suggest an alternative? I rarely offered my opinions on project workstreams. After all, I was new and wanted to be respectful of my manager.
Through several years of constructive feedback, evaluations, and encouragement from various managers, I managed to work through this shell. Some folks have suggested that this was a personality change and not the impact of cultural differences. I believe otherwise. At home and with friends I was extroverted, opinionated, and energetic. I now know that I always wanted to be that same person at work, but my sense of etiquette usually stopped me. Now I know that I can respect others while still speaking up for my opinions, thoughts, and ideas.
I did not fully realize how much I had changed until recently. A mid-forties Asian counterpart responded to my ideas on a conference call by saying, “You don’t know anything. You are new. Let me tell you how it is done, okay?” At first I was shocked into silence. Did he just say that I knew nothing?! Maybe I shouldn’t have spoken up. I was upset for a while, then I slowly pieced it together. First, the language barrier was at play. Maybe he didn’t mean it so harshly. Second, he could have felt undermined – after all, I was new and he had been around for twenty years. Most importantly, however, I acknowledged the cultural aspect. He came from a culture where not questioning and only listening is a sign of respect toward those more experienced. He could be unconsciously falling back into that cultural pattern, despite efforts to remain more aligned with the American workplace.
This helped me not to judge him. The next time I spoke up, I framed it in a way that showed I valued his input and experience. It made a huge difference.
Changing childhood cultural habits can take decades. The most difficult ones are those where we change for specific situations, like at work, but are expected to remain unchanged at home. Undoubtedly, it takes versatility and practice. Knowing how confusing it can be, in future when I am faced with such a conflict, I will give others the benefit of the doubt!