How to Succeed in American Business

Teaching in a multicultural environment often includes overtly explaining American business culture and helping students practice that language. For starters, there’s the direct eye contact, the body language, the smiling, the small talk, the willingness to let people know you’re accomplishing something–while not crossing the line into boasting.

In “Looking at the Bamboo Ceiling,” NPR’s Melissa Block and Michele Norris interviewed Wesley Yang, author of “Paper Tigers: What Happens to All Of The Asian-American Overachievers When the Test-taking Ends?” and Jane Hyun, author of Breaking The Bamboo Ceiling. Both write about “Asian-American students’ over-representation in almost every index of achievement in education . . .  and under-representation in corporate leadership.” They describe the adjustments they have made to be as successful in business as they were in the classroom. They’ve learned to share achievements, and to connect socially through the nonverbal cues.

Hyun tells the story of working on spreadsheets while a colleague seemed to waste a few minutes every day, chatting with the boss. Hyun’s background had taught her to put her nose down, work hard, all alone at her desk; no one taught her that building relationships would also matter.

Yang explains that in many places in the world, if you went around smiling all the time, “you’d be perceived not as a friendly person, but as a crazy one.” He finds it handy to use his “Asian poker face” at times, and jokes that he hasn’t learned to smile, but notes that “the United States has a different expectation, and if you don’t meet that expectation, there will in many cases be a barrier to trust and acceptance . . . your whole life on the basis of something that seems so trivial and . . . can be changed.”

Just as Americans need to learn new communication styles when they work internationally, many of our own students require bicultural fluency to be successful. I tell students from backgrounds where direct eye contact is considered rude that staring at someone’s nose looks exactly like eye contact without being quite as uncomfortable for them. And I encourage them to retain the gifts of their own cultures, and to continue to use their cultural nonverbal traditions at home, while learning to speak “American business” at work and school. These additional cultural ideas make all the difference in American career and social success:

  • The American business sense of time requires punctuality and a full day of work all day every day.
  • You’re required to communicate. If you can’t come in, or you’re going to be late, you call your boss and make a new agreement. You don’t wander off early without letting people know what’s happening. (You also take the loss on your timecard if you’re hourly, or let people know how you’ll make up the work if you’re on salary.)
  • When you make a mistake, you apologize and learn out how to correct it or improve next time. Neither ignoring a mistake nor treating a correction as an attack on your honor will help you work things out.
  • Smoking won’t entitle you to extra breaks and won’t be socially acceptable in most workplaces. According to a 2009 Center for Disease Control report, high school dropouts smoked at a rate of over 28%, while those with graduate degrees were down to 5.6%. Yes, that would probably be the toughest adjustment you could make, but you wouldn’t be the first person to quit, and every organ in your 60-year-old body would thank you.

All of these learned behaviors are challenging, but possible. If someone offered you an extra $10,000 a year, or $100K, would you do it? That’s the invitation. You are officially invited to the ball. Feel free to dress up, put on your American business manners, and shine.

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Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011