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Working abroad: Do you need to choose between authenticity and effectiveness?

Working or doing business abroad often means using a foreign language, getting used to different ways of communicating, and fitting into an unfamiliar culture. Sometimes, this shift can make you feel like you are not being your authentic self, like you are out of place, even fake. You may feel torn between being authentic and being effective in your role.


man holding sign authenticity or effectiveness

In my blog post, I will cover three reasons why you might feel inauthentic navigating a new culture. Then, I’ll share three strategies to help you overcome this feeling, so you can handle your role and its challenges successfully.


Why you feel inauthentic:


1. You are not able to express yourself fully.


Consider Kurt, a German engineer, who just started a short-term assignment at his company’s US subsidiary. His job is to support the US team during the imminent product launch and be the “technical liaison” between the subsidiary and HQ in Germany. It’s a great career opportunity for him.

 

In the first meeting with the US launch team, one of his American colleagues asked him a question he was not prepared for. He knew the answer but was struggling to explain the issue as accurately as he would have liked to (and could have done in German). In the spontaneous situation, his mind was working in overdrive, but a few crucial English words just wouldn’t come to him. He’s a perfectionist and felt quite embarrassed. He walked out of the meeting feeling inadequate. But not just that. He also felt like he was not able to show his new colleagues who he is: a competent expert who can confidently handle difficult situations.


Feeling inauthentic often goes hand in hand with feeling inadequate and can be the result of your inability to express yourself fully in English. You are limited in what you can share about yourself and the things that matter to you. Like Kurt, you may be an expert in your field, but you struggle to express more complex ideas or relevant nuances.


This hinders your ability to communicate naturally and authentically, especially in spontaneous situations. You may also worry that you are perceived as less competent overall.


2. You are outside your cultural comfort zone.


House under glass dome

Apart from the language, there may be things you don’t know and understand about the new culture. As you interact with people, you are confronted with new behaviors and experiences. Some of them are very different from what you are used to and don’t make much sense to you.

 

At the same time, you feel pressure to adapt and conform to different etiquette, expectations, and professional conduct. To blend in, you suppress your natural inclinations and act in ways that feel unnatural to you. You are forced to leave your comfort zone. No wonder you feel inauthentic and out of place!

 

But there’s more. The gap between our brain and our verbal and non-verbal actions can be quite large. Even when we know a lot, we may be unable to convert that knowledge into appropriate action. Often, that’s a sign that we need more time, more help, and more practice.


3. Your values get in the way.


 The struggle to convert knowledge into action may have other, more deep-rooted causes.


Take Sabine, an Austrian university lecturer, who got a teaching position at a US university. Sabine is passionate about her field and always strives for the highest standards, also in her teaching.

 

In her new department, it is customary to conduct a mid-term course evaluation about six or seven weeks into the semester. Sabine does not think that it’s necessary to ask her students for feedback in the middle of the semester but goes along with it. As she reviews the feedback forms, she is shocked by the negative comments: boring classes, not enough interaction, no “fun”, and her “unapproachable” personality. Sabine confides in a colleague who tells her that US students expect engagement and entertainment in the classroom – fun activities, games, etc. Sabine feels that such activities are out of place at a university and is not sure if she can and wants to do that. She would not feel authentic. After all, she is a researcher-lecturer and not an entertainer.


confused woman

The practices and behaviors you find in the new culture are guided by a different value system, by different principles and beliefs. Values and beliefs are central to our identity. We use them as benchmarks for our decisions and actions. And they can really get in the way of effective communication and cooperation.


You may have problems understanding the new culture’s values. What’s more, you may disagree with them, and they may be in conflict with your own principles and beliefs. The need to fit into a new cultural value system can cause serious discomfort and the feeling of not being true to oneself.

 

At times, it may feel like you need to choose between being authentic and being effective. Can you be both?


Authentic and effective: what you can do to be both.


1. Advance your communication skills.

 

Continuously improve your language skills through speaking, listening, and engaging with fluent speakers. Expand your vocabulary range. Words are essential for self-expression. Improved language abilities boost confidence and facilitate a more natural communication.

 

Explore the norms and customs of the new culture and grow your knowledge. Make an effort to understand why people do and say what they do and say. A better understanding of your communication partners’ culture can help you feel more comfortable with it.

 

Work with a cultural mentor or coach who can guide you through the process of cultural learning and adaptation.


2. Know your goals

 

Having clear goals can make it easier to adapt to new situations. Linking the new behaviors to a purpose is key. Understanding the “why” behind our actions can significantly reduce our inner conflicts.

 

Take Sabine’s example. Sabine’s goal is to share her knowledge and help her students gain a better understanding of the topic she teaches. If she sticks to her habitual ways, she will have a hard time reaching that goal. If she is willing to make some adjustments, she can be a more effective lecturer and reach her goal.


3. View yourself as a work in progress

 

“By viewing ourselves as works in progress and evolving our professional identities through trial and error, we can develop a personal style that feels right to us and suits our organizations’ changing needs.”, is what Herminia Ibarra says in her article The Authenticity Paradox: Why Feeling Like a Fake Is a Sign of Growth. Your authentic self doesn't have to be rigid, but can open to change and growth.


Cat looking in the mirror

Success in a new culture does not require a radical personality makeover. You do not have to give up who you are or what you believe in.


Yet, it’s vital to be open to trying new behaviors and embracing different perspectives. Adapting will let you expand your repertoire of behaviors and communication styles and your comfort zone. It will allow your professional identity to evolve so you can successfully handle new challenges and situations – and still feel true to yourself.


Do you need help becoming comfortable and effective in American English? Do you need help navigating US culture and understanding American values, so you can be more successful in your professional life? Contact me to schedule a free 30-minute consultation. I look forward to hearing from you!




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