Are you more like the break-dancer, or are you more like the sumo-ringer?
The break-dancer is flexible. He adjusts quickly to any music which is playing, and he can move his body in a large variety of ways. The sumo-ringer is firm. He can withstand any weight that is pressing on him and he has the strength of will to resist any pressure.
Firmness of character means to be driven by our own values and beliefs. It means that we know who we are and that we act in accordance to our own personal self as opposed to being influenced by the environment that we are in.
Adaptability means that we remain open for new ways of behaving, feeling and thinking. It means that we observe the behavior of those around us, and that we are capable not only of adjusting our behavioral style according to the situation, but that we are also able to adapt to new values and beliefs if we feel that they are a better reflection of how the world really works.
Firmness of character and adaptability are directly opposed to each other
Having a firm character means to be strongly grounded in a set of values and beliefs and to ensure that all our actions are in congruence with them.
Being adaptable, on the other hand, means that we should be able to look at any given situation and to see whether or not we need to adjust our beliefs and behavioral patterns in order to achieve better outcomes in a different cultural environment. It is one of the key skills of any intercultural communicator.
So do we have to choose between one or the other?
I personally do not believe so. Rather, I think that both of them are equally important and that it is one of the most central question for any expatriate to develop a balance between both of these qualities.
In order to develop a firm character we need to:
- understand the different layers of our own identity (and how they influence our behavior)
- understand our most central values and beliefs (and how they influence our behavior)
- make clear decisions about what we stand for and what behaviors represent this worldview
In order to become adaptable we need to:
- stay open towards adding new layers to our identity (joining a new group of people, moving to a new cultural environment, identifying with a new set of values and beliefs)
- stay open towards the value of new behavioral patterns as well as belief systems
- find ways to integrate new ways of thinking and behaving into our behavioral repertoire
From my perspective, none of these required behaviors are necessarily in conflict with each other. Firmness of character doesn’t mean to be rigid and to always insist on the idea that our own way of looking at the world is the only possible option. In fact, if we were to dismiss other worldviews on the basis that they are going against our own way of looking at the world, we would become so rigid that all learning and growth becomes impossible.
Instead, what firmness of character really means is that whenever we are making a decision about how to act, we essentially are asking ourselves whether this behavior goes in line with our own values and beliefs.
How to have a firm character AND remain adaptable
As expatriates, we are constantly exposed to new behavioral patterns and belief systems. It is simply impossible for us to adapt all of them, as this would inevitably lead to an identity crisis as we feel that we are being inauthentic to who we are at our core.
We always have to acknowledge who we really are.
But here is the catch: we should always acknowledge who we really are, while at the same time internalizing the belief that all cultures have some valuable pieces of wisdom to offer to the world.
In fact, making this idea that all cultures have valuable pieces of wisdom to offer to the world is so essential to living in a foreign country without ending up in an identity crisis, that I can not stress the importance of reflecting on this idea regularly and making it a part of your core values.
If we adopt this belief that all cultures have equal value in terms of providing wisdom to the world, whenever we are confronted with a new type of behavior or belief, the first question that comes to our mind is this: how can this be useful to my own personal development?
Of course, we will never be able to adapt all beliefs or all cultural patterns.
Rather, what we are doing is that we pick and choose those beliefs and cultural patterns that we can identify with and believe in, and we make them a part of who we are. As for those who we disagree with after careful reflection, we reject them or adjust them in a way that is more suitable with our own personal self.
I refer to this process as value shopping: when we are going to another cultural environment, we essentially “buy into” those values and beliefs that are in congruence with our own sense of self, and we leave those values and beliefs behind that feel wrong to us or inconsistent with who we are.
So, what are the next steps for you?
Now, I want to reflect on this paradox between firmness of character and adaptability.
- Until now, have you had the tendency to go towards one extreme or the other? If so, which one? What steps can you take to reach a more moderate position between the two extremes?
- What does adaptability mean to you? How can you become more open-minded towards integrating new behaviors and beliefs into your sense of who you are?
- What does firmness of character mean to you? What steps can you take to become more aware of your own personal values and beliefs? What steps can you take to ensure that you always adjust your behavior in a way that it goes in line with these values and beliefs?
Lastly, I would be curious to hear from you. Can you describe a situation in which you have been struggling with creating a balance between firmness of character and adaptability? What have you done to resolve this?
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