You cannot avoid building an identity. Thanks to everything you say and do on a daily basis, your colleagues are forming opinions about who you are and what you can do professionally, regardless of their cultural background. This happens automatically and is something that all cultures share. How actively do you participate in building your intercultural identity?
I find that many of my clients who work in intercultural contexts do not actively participate in the process. Either it does not occur to them or if it does they do not know how to build an identity effectively. So I often show them how to actively participate in the process.
Some find this step slightly uncomfortable at first. They are concerned that they may be perceived as praising themselves excessively. In some cultures, such praise is not well regarded. However, what they soon discover is that egotistical self-praise is not what I am suggesting. Rather, clarity about what identity they want to participate in building, and how best to articulate that, is the objective.
Perhaps you also rarely think about this; however, it constantly affects you. For example, you can feel disappointed if you hear that someone perceives you in a way that does not match how you perceive yourself. On the other hand, you can be pleased when someone expresses an opinion of you that reflects what you like about yourself.
One of my clients, a French quality control manager, told me that what he appreciated about himself was his enthusiasm. This was something that he wanted others to know about and appreciate. What he meant by enthusiasm was that he enjoyed taking on challenges and had the capacity to dedicate himself wholeheartedly to new quality improvement projects. The kinds of people he liked to have on his team when he was improving procedures were those who shared his enthusiasm. However, he told me that since a recent merger with a Scandinavian company it seemed to him that his enthusiasm was being misinterpreted by others as being overbearing. He said that he had never heard that comment about him in his own culture but only within this new intercultural context.
Was he being overbearing or was he enthusiastic? The point is not which opinion about him was “right” or “wrong.” A better question is whether he was willing to directly express the opinion he preferred. He agreed that criticizing others for their “wrong” opinion of him was not an effective strategy. As an alternative I showed him how to express the opinion he wanted new colleagues to have of him in a variety of different ways and how to use these in different contexts. Thanks to this approach, when he subsequently gave a presentation or spoke at a meeting he made a point of directly expressing that he was someone who took on challenges with enthusiasm. He also made a point of saying how important being enthusiastic and working with enthusiastic team members was to him.
Months later I got an email from him saying that he had received a positive assessment on his recent yearly job review; it listed enthusiasm as something that most people he worked with commented on and had grown to appreciate about him.
Our Identity Lives in Language, More Than We Realize
Identity is formed by the opinions speech stream that we constantly exchange with others, which includes our opinions of ourselves. I am not claiming that you will automatically change everyone’s opinion about you by what you say. However, by expressing your opinion of yourself consistently you are at least actively participating in the identity you want to build.
We often fail to take responsibility for building our identities within an intercultural situation. That is not surprising, since in our own language and culture we often rely on body language, tone of voice and shared cultural values to achieve that.
For example, in your own culture, speaking in a particular tone of voice, using a particular gesture or making eye contact can win you respect and trust. That is extremely effective when your listener interprets that tone and body language in the way you intended. But even in our own culture, this is more an art than a science. So certainly within an intercultural context, in which standards vary dramatically in regards to tonality and gestures, we cannot leave how we are perceived to chance.
Furthermore, in our own culture it is relatively easy to read other people’s reactions as positive or negative. We can then slightly change what we say and how we say it to generate the opinions from others that we desire. In all these subtle ways we actively influence the identity we build. We do this without paying much attention to what we are doing; it all takes place naturally.
Of course, such subtle adaptations also take place within intercultural contexts. However, we can never be as certain of our effectiveness. Within an intercultural context all of the usual cues, such as body language and tone of voice, are unreliable. Therefore, the only thing left to rely on is communicating clearly and concisely. So if you choose not to say what you want others to know about you, you are losing an important opportunity.
Your listeners or readers will never have as grounded an opinion of you as you have of yourself. So while you certainly cannot prevent others from having opinions about you, you know who you are and what you are capable of. So why not say that clearly, concisely and confidently?