One Christmas, I invited a Turkish friend to celebrate with me and my family. After a few hours of everyone playing games and making tamales together, my niece noticed something unusual about the way I was acting.
Why, she asked my aunt, was I talking in Turkish-accented English?
My aunt laughed.
“Micah accidentally starts speaking like anyone she’s around,” she said. “She’s a chameleon like that.”
When my aunt shared this with me later, I told her that I hadn’t even realized that I was speaking with an accent in my native language.
Then I started noticing how often I do stuff like this. It’s a lot!
Because of my travels, I tend to mimic whatever norms are around me. If people are speaking loudly, I speak loudly. (Which is my normal state, actually. I am American, and I am Micah).
If people start speaking softly, I do that. If people bow to me, I bow to them. If they wiggle their finger at me in order to indicate “yes” (as is done in Mexico), I do that, too.
It’s not conscious, but I think I do this to make others feel comfortable.
Guess what? It does!
Any time you need to communicate across cultures, it helps to be a bit of a chameleon. Wherever you are, it takes more than knowing the language to be understood and to fit in. It also takes paying attention to all the other ways that people communicate and then adapting your behavior accordingly.
This might sound tricky, but you’re probably already more of a chameleon than you think you are. Start noticing how you show up differently with different people in your life.
For example, “work you” is probably not quite the same as “hanging out with friends you.”
Most of us manage this shifting between our various “selves” pretty effortlessly within our own, familiar culture. We can learn to do the same thing with another culture, but — at least at first — it takes more intention. Here are a few tips to help you get started.
Throw Out Your Assumptions
When you mostly spend time with people of your culture, you can kind of coast through life on autopilot. You know how things work and what people mean when they act in certain ways. But when you communicate across cultures, remember that other people aren’t operating from the same playbook that you are. Take handshakes. In the U.S., if someone gives you a firm handshake and looks you in the eye, you probably form a positive first impression. But the opposite is true among Japanese people. For them, proper etiquette is a weak handshake with little eye contact.
Sharpen Your Powers of Observation
This can be a tough thing to do if you’re a “jump right in” kind of person, but it’s really important. Once you realize that the people around you aren’t necessarily following the same cultural norms you’re used to, the next step is picking up on the norms that they do follow. Watch and listen carefully for cues about what your behavior should be.
Open Your Mind
Some of what you notice might seem a little weird at first. I remember the first time I went to a party in Mexico. Every time a new person came in, they would go around the room and kiss everyone on the cheek — even if they had never met them! My gut reaction was to pull away. Why are a stranger’s lips getting so close to mine? Eek! But just because this wasn’t what I was used to didn’t mean it was wrong. In fact, kiss greetings are common in many countries around the world, so try not to pull away.
Mimic, Mimic, Mimic
I’ve written before about how imitating native speakers is the best way to learn a language. That’s also true for all the other aspects of communicating across cultures. At that first party in Mexico, I learned to navigate the kiss greeting by doing what other people did. And when I started working with clients from Japan, I learned to tone down my natural touchiness when I noticed that they weren’t very touchy and seemed uncomfortable when I did try to touch them. By the way, this is one of the many good reasons to study with a native speaker when you want to learn a new language. You aren’t just learning from the way they speak. You’ll also pick up on how they conduct themselves in other ways.
No matter how different another culture is from your own, you’ll be a more effective communicator when you remind yourself to observe and imitate. For more tips on being a cultural chameleon, I recommend checking out this episode of “The Culture Guy” podcast featuring Pellegrino Riccardi, a cross-cultural speaker and consultant. We’re also happy to talk with you anytime about how corporate language training by Fluency Corp also helps you build cultural fluency. Contact us for a free consultation: firstname.lastname@example.org or (800) 401-3159.