How to Adapt To Your Environment Without Loosing Yourself


Eminem isn’t exactly famous for his intellectual insights, but with this statement he comes very near to what I want to express in this post: your self is much more dependent on other people than you would have ever imagined.  In western cultures, we raise our children to express themselves and to strive towards their goals. In short: we value uniqueness and independence. However, research shows that as much as we want to be unique, our “self” is strongly influenced by the people around us.

Ehm… wait. Even the word self is not exactly the right word here. For example, to say “I am shy” is not exactly right. Well, it is grammatically speaking. But the truth is that we all have several selves – the way the think and behave depends on the situation we are in. I’m sure you ever wondered about someone who seemed to be a completely different person when she spoke with X then when she speaks with you. And yes, this is quite normal. The extreme form of this are schizophrenics, who are not able to distinguish between their different selves. So, how exactly does that happen?

“Normal” people have what researches call a narrative thread. Just like in a piece of garment, the thread holds our different selves together. And just like in the story of Theseus slaying the Minotaur, the thread gives us a direction to follow. Yes, we do have different selves, we do behave differently depending with whom we interact, but our most fundamental values and our purpose in life remain the same. And this narrative thread that works as a guiding light is exactly what schizophrenics are missing.

“Fine, but how does this make any difference in real life?” Good question! Well, all expatriates come to the point where they feel lost. They have to deal with the question who they are and which aspects of themselves are the most important. Having adopted to their host culture in many ways, they have already forgotten what their “own” culture is like. And yes, to be honest I am fighting with exactly this problem right now. But just at the time when I am occupied with answering this question for myself, I am already moving on, making the answer even more difficult.
the culture map


Now, if you look at Erin Meyer’s culture map above, you will see several dimensions on which cultures differ. For example, your culture might use a very consensual approach to decision making, but your own host culture uses a more top-down approach. Your employees expect you to make the decisions, not to ask them for their opinions. And if you don’t, they see you as incompetent. What will you do? Well, one thing is sure: it will make you feel uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable.

External sources that influence your behavior are called external scripts. Cultural differences such as these discussed above are a good example for this. These external scripts force us to make a decision: either to internalize them and adapt to the expectations of other people, or to ignore them altogether and, in the worst case, become a social outcast.  In other words: they are what causes us to feel lost.

But the good thing is that they don’t have to. You can stay true to yourself and still adapt to the expectations of others. The reason is that whenever we come to a new environment, we do not just blindly adapt everything that is new to us. Instead, as David DiSalvo describes in his great book  Brain Changer, “you integrate the newness of the place into your existing self-narrative [narrative thread]”. It’s not that our old behavior gets lost if we adapt to a new environment, instead our brain identifies important aspects of your host culture and integrates them into your old habits of thinking.

Let’s say the reason why you dislike top-down communication is that you value respecting your colleagues. Respect as a value therefore becomes your self-narrative. Now you simply have to tell yourself that the way you respect your colleagues is by making decisions for them, because you want to take care of them and do what’s in their best interests just like a Japanese boss would do. You become a father figure for them, and of course you respect your own sons and daughters, right?



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