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Crack the Cultural Code for Your Career Success

We at Moving Up in America have consistently stressed the need for foreign-born professionals to change behaviors that impede your career success. You need to match your actions to what's expected in the American workplace to get ahead. Here we discuss a practical process for adapting your behavior developed by Andy Molinsky. He describes this process in his book, Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures Without Losing Yourself in the Process.

We will discuss the five dimensions involved in understanding behavior different from yours, so you can emulate it. You will then be able to:

  • Understand the rules for behaving appropriately.

  • Know the key cultural differences to look for in the workplace.

  • Increase awareness of your preferred communication style.

  • Identify the gap between expected behavior and your own culturally influenced preferred behavior.

Five Dimensions of Communication Style

The following five dimensions represent different aspects of your communication style or how you communicate:

  1. Directness

  2. Enthusiasm

  3. Formality

  4. Assertiveness

  5. Self-Promotion


Being direct means you say exactly what is on your mind. You don't hint or imply.

Americans prefer directness. They want you to "get to the point," "tell it like it is," and "face the facts."

Many Asians, on the other hand, prefer indirect communication. Instead of "no," they say "that would be difficult." A Chinese engineer told us he asks co-workers if they have free time, instead of saying he needs help.


How much positive emotion you show, like excitement, is a measure of enthusiasm.

In the American workplace, you are expected to show positive emotions about your job, your project, and the argument you may be making.

This level of positive emotion may seem inappropriate to you. An Indian engineer remarked about her colleagues, "They seem so excited about everything that they are bouncing off the walls. They act like they have had ten cups of coffee. They wear me out. I can't keep up with them."

In the Chinese workplace, modesty and self-control are the norm. Expressing too much emotion, especially in front of the boss, could be seen as showing off, which is typically not condoned.


The formality dimension refers to how proper or casual you are.

Americans tend to be more informal in the workplace than people in Asian, African, Arab, and South American countries.

For example, American bosses are called by their first name and are treated like another member of the team.

In contrast, Indian managers expect to be addressed as "Sir." They may also expect automatic agreement with their decisions and may be less likely to delegate authority to subordinates.


How strongly and directly you voice your opinion and advocate your point of view comprise assertiveness.

The typical high tech workplace values direct, open, and even challenging communications. It also values willingness to present unpopular views.

You are expected to present and sell ideas freely and forcefully.

You may find being assertive difficult and stressful because of your cultural values.

For example, many Asians are unwilling to provoke open disagreement by expressing contrary opinions. Additionally, they value humility and discourage boastfulness.


Self-promotion involves telling others about your strengths and accomplishments.

To be considered for a choice assignment or for a special career development opportunity, you need to be open and direct in expressing your interest and the reasons you should be selected.

Calling attention to yourself, however, can be challenging.

But many foreign-born professionals assume erroneously that their bosses will naturally recognize their achievements as is the custom in many Asian countries.

Summary: Cracking the Cultural Code

Molinsky's five dimensions provide the tools for you to decipher the cultural code of any work situation.

They help you to precisely determine expected behavior and to evaluate how much it might differ from your own natural style.

With this data, you are then able to modify your behavior by degrees in a way that feels comfortable and authentic. With practice, you can integrate the new behavior into how you normally act.

These five dimensions reflect aspects of communication style that intercultural communication researchers have identified as key for success in the American workplace.

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