According to a recent report from the National Research Council, foreign workers make up approximately 25 percent of the high-tech industry’s workforce. These workers—particularly IT consultants who interact with clients, vendors, and colleagues—must make rapid cultural adjustments in order to achieve any measure of success.
“There are tremendous cultural changes that influence every foreigner entering the United States,” said Fatima Albegonova, an account manager at Maryland-based IT services firm Crescent Systems LLC, who hails from North Ossetia in Russia. “The biggest cultural challenge for consultants is usually the need to get adjusted to a different, goal-oriented work environment and a totally different social hierarchy.”
In this article, I’ll explore the various issues that consultants entering the United States face and offer tips for dealing with each of them.
A new work ethic and social adjustment
Anthony Chang, a network administrator with Rivtow Marine Inc ., believes there’s a “stark contrast” between the attitudes and behavior expected from an IT worker in his home country and that of the United States. Chang says that in Southeast Asia, your academic success is seen as proof of your ability but that you have to “sell yourself” in North America. “That's where I fall short,” Chang says. “I was not used to [accentuating] my abilities but just exercising humility.”
M. Shahbaaz, a network administrator from Pakistan, had to “unlearn certain things—like keeping quiet when I disagree with my superiors. Here, they are open to dissent. At home, you could lose your job for voicing disagreement too often or too loudly.”
Workers must also adapt to a radically new social landscape. Rajani Sharma, a Michigan-based Java developer from India, says that her lack of social skills left her feeling very isolated when she first arrived in the United States. “I didn't know how to respond to the greeting, 'How are you doing?' I'd just say, 'Fine, thanks,' and walk away. My coworkers perceived this as rude and standoffish. My first assignment here was a friendless one simply because I didn't know enough to say, 'Good. And you?'"
Web sites like AllEtiquette.com and Etiquette-tips.com can offer tips and suggestions on acceptable social conduct, and they also address a diverse range of practical issues like restroom do’s and don’ts, personal hygiene, business etiquette, and more. You can also follow these basic tips to help you negotiate the new social structure:
- Watch, listen, and learn. It’s okay to ask twice before you attempt anything you’re unsure of or to wait and watch another person do something before you attempt it yourself.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you can’t figure out how to use that ticket vending machine or how to swipe your credit card, ask someone for assistance. You’d be surprised at how many Americans also find them hard to use.
- Apologize when you make a faux pas. Explain that you are from another country and ask for the correct way to do or say something. Most people will be happy to help if you show that you are eager to learn.
Of course, one of the first stumbling blocks many new immigrants experience is the language barrier. But even when a foreign worker is fluent in English, speech patterns and cadence can pose difficulties. “This can be a huge problem, as Indians tend to speak at 80 to 100 words per minute, while Americans, on average, speak at the rate of just 60 words per minute,” noted Sumana Chittaranjan, a quality assurance manager at i2 Technologies—a Dallas-basedprovider of supply chain and marketplace solutions.
And nonverbal cues can also be confusing. Your American manager could easily construe a vigorous shake of the head from side to side (which in Indian society, represents a confirmatory nod) to mean just the opposite.
Sudhir Kamath, sales manager at Crescent Systems LLC, believes that language isn’t the great barrier it’s made out to be. As long as a worker is contributing to the project, he says, his or her “general demeanor” has a much stronger impact on his or her career than knowledge of the language.
Kamath offered this advice for foreign consultants who want to better their verbal and nonverbal workplace communication skills:
- Learn the proper form of greeting. Many foreign cultures don’t have the custom of greeting and reciprocal greeting as a precursor to every business conversation. What may be an acceptable form of address back home may be considered extremely rude here. Not knowing this basic courtesy can set all your conversations off on the wrong foot.
- Get used to making a few minutes of polite small talk before jumping straight to business. Expect to be asked about the weather and learn how to respond in a casual, friendly manner. Don’t be brusque or show impatience. Business or technical interactions in this country are far more informal and take on a far more conversational tone than they do in many other cultures.
- Don’t be afraid to speak up. You are a member of a team, so don’t wait to be given specific instructions. You are supposed to show initiative, ask questions, and find out in what direction the project is going and how you can contribute.
- Contribute at meetings. Your opinion is valued. Have something to say, even if it’s just a question. If you don’t express an opinion or ask relevant questions, people begin to wonder whether you are aware of the dynamics of the project and its progress.
- Avoid using body language that may come across as submissive. Bowing, standing up each time you speak to a senior colleague, or repeatedly addressing your boss as “sir” can make you stand out. Though such behavior is viewed as respectful in most Asian cultures, it can be uncomfortable to most Americans who are used to a more egalitarian attitude.
In their search for cultural support, many foreign consultants tend to find and stick with people of their own culture who have perhaps been in the United States for a longer time, Albegonova noted. While this can be a great source of support and advice, it also can prevent you from learning from the people who know the system best—your American colleagues. “It was very easy to stick with a small group of my Pakistani friends,” said Shahbaaz. “But one day, I plucked up enough courage to ask an American coworker out for lunch, saying that I needed to talk about a few things. I learned much more about American work culture at that lunch than I had in the previous 18 months. It’s an entirely different viewpoint from one that was seen through the culturally biased lens of my friends.”
Cultural support groups abound. Organizations like The IndUS Entrepreneurs and the Immigrants Support Network can help foreign workers understand what their employers expect of them and offer advice on the finer points of working and living in the United States.
While the burden of adjustment definitely lies with the worker, there’s a lot that companies can do to help. Albegonova believes that human resource departments should play an important role in a consultant's transition and says that predeparture orientation, as well as orientation upon a worker’s arrival in the United States, is essential.
Shebu Raphael, human resources manager at Birlasoft, a software consulting firm based in Edison, NJ, says his company ensures that foreign workers are well informed, providing informational material to the workers and retaining contact with them during the transition.
If your company doesn’t have a formal mentoring system in place to help foreign workers with the transition, it does no harm to ask for a mentor to be assigned to you. Your superiors will likely appreciate your willingness to learn and assimilate. If you’re diffident about making such a request, you can instead try to bond with one or two coworkers who can show you the ropes. Another good idea is to solicit periodic feedback from your senior colleagues. In addition to reviewing your work performance, ask them to review your ability to adapt to the work culture and to highlight the areas you need to work on.