The Ups and Downs of Cultural Conformity

A friend of mine moved to the South from New York because of a job opportunity. He told me, “People keep asking me, where do you go to church?”  To this community, fitting in with the culture involved one being part of a church. However, since my friend is Jewish, church attendance was not on the cards for him. This was the first of many cultural adaptations he had to make.

Every time we leave the bubble of our own culture we run into folks who do things in different ways. We then face the challenge to respect the differences and adapt to them as best as we can.

However, what do you do when you find yourself in conflict with the dominant culture that surrounds you? What if you don’t go to church? Do you conform or do you do your own thing?

I remember one time I was asked by a very traditional company to assess some of their junior executives for C-Level promotion possibilities. It was the holiday season and I wore a dark red cashmere sweater (in lieu of jacket and tie) to the job, which was held in a rented conference room at a local hotel. It was not long after that I heard that a complaint had been lodged with HR….that I had come to work in a “Christmas sweater”!

Should I have given a damn about that comment? Probably yes, if I wanted to work for that Company again. However, the attitude “I’ll live my life and you live yours” brings one into conflict with the unofficial “chief conformity officers” in the community where one lives and works. There are times when it is simply not prudent to try and fit in and follow the herd. The price of conformity becomes too high.

And so we determine our own goals, values, and behaviors and then live by them no matter how much flak we get from the dominant culture.

However, there are times when we choose to adapt to the cultural norms. What criteria do we use to make changes and to incorporate those values into our lives?

Three Rules of Successful Cultural Assimilation are

First, recognize that we live in a highly conformist society. Part of this conformity has a positive impact by a creating cohesion in a community. It’s that “they who pray together that stay together” phenomena. It is also the glue that brings people together to get things done like community action or charitable work. So next time I’m invited back to that company I won’t wear my Christmas sweater.

However, the downside of “enforced togetherness” is that it can set up a tension between one’s own personal preferences and the desire to belong. On the negative side, sometimes we don’t want to pay the price of being squeezed into a mold or controlled by others.

Second, know when to conform and when to draw a line in the sand and declare to all “I do things my way”. At times the choice I make is based on practical considerations. For instance, in Japan, it is customary for folks to bow to each other. The depth of the bow depends on a number of considerations like rank and age. As a Westerner, I don’t have clue how low to bow so I avoid the practice all together. Going native with my bow could get me into trouble. There are other times when I choose to at least greet people in in their native language. To me this is not conformity but an act of respect. They know that I cannot continue the conversation in this language but give me credit for trying.

Third, love and celebrate others. That goes against the drift of judging everything that is different. I like my independence and my own mongrel cultural mix but I value diversity at the same time. Over the years my life has been greatly enriched through contact with other cultures. The Mexicans, where we lived for seven years, have taught me the value of social protocol trumping transactional conversations. It is more important for me now that I greet people (Buenas dias), ask for permission to pass by on a sidewalk (con permisso), or wish people well when they are eating (buen provecho) than to jump into a conversation and ask directions to the plaza. I celebrate the fact that this particular culture values relationships over transactions. Differences are not bad or dangerous; they make me a better person.

The underlying message of this blog is: Be yourself by all means but be respectful as well of cultural norms that bind us together in an increasingly fragmented world.

What are your stories of cultural adaptation?


About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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