The big idea: With more than 7 billion people in the world, millions are working outside their birth countries. Yet our experiences are shaped by our nationality, the geographic location where we spend most of our formative years, the families who raise us, the friends we make and the places we work. Through shared beliefs, values and assumptions, these formative experiences determine the culture in which we feel most comfortable. But what happens when we leave our familiar culture or encounter beliefs and value systems different from our own? Can we still be ourselves and succeed? Where is the balance?
The scenario: Kevin Tsai had recently joined a U.S.-based company in the semiconductor industry. The native of Taiwan had been heavily recruited to head up an engineering team that would play a critical role in the firm’s highest-priority project. He had proven himself in Silicon Valley after earning his MBA at Stanford, and he had been a top student in the leading science and technology university in Taiwan. In short, he was a rising star.
Still, receiving recognition for his achievements had never come easy. Humility is a quality ingrained in Taiwanese or Chinese culture, where it is customary to politely defer or deflect praise of any sort. Even when individual accomplishments are recognized, praise is shared with everyone involved with the achievement, from mentors to family. Now, at his new company’s first project-wide meeting, the senior project manager began by extolling Kevin’s track record and accomplishments, then setting a high bar of expectations. He turned to Kevin.
Suddenly, with all eyes in the room on him, the young team leader found himself in an uncomfortably familiar spot. He was in cultural waters he had, for all his experience in the West, not yet figured out how to navigate. How should Kevin respond?
The resolution: While a standard answer in U.S. terms would likely have been a simple “thank you” and perhaps a comment about the work, that reaction did not fit with Kevin’s cultural norms, which called for him to reply by saying something like “I am lucky” or “My parents and professors have prepared me well.” Such an Eastern reply might be considered “dishonest” by the Westerners. Instead, his two very different experiences, in the East and West, converged. He paused a beat or two, nodded and replied simply, “That is very kind of you.” His response was a culmination of learning how to balance an appropriate reply in his own culture with the norms of his adopted country. It was a nuanced and subtly profound expression of being “ambicultural.”
The lesson: “Being ourselves” in a culture different from our own — adapting and at the same time remaining true to oneself — requires knowing how to respond in situations where our cultural norms make us feel uneasy to do so. This is the key to ambicultural action: the understanding that even seemingly incompatible differences can exist in harmony. In the business context, ambiculturalism involves the ongoing integration of geo-economic cultures such as East and West or global and local. In the bigger picture, it may require integration across a range of perceived opposites. In the ambicultural perspective, any two entities may transcend their differences, first through knowledge and appreciation of another’s culture, then by bridging and blending the two. This way of thinking is more essential in today’s global environment than ever before. Applying the ambicultural approach to the tension between opposites, or “others,” is a powerful way to resolve problems not only in organizations but in our increasingly interconnected, interdependent and even, perhaps, divided societies.
Ming-Jer Chen is the Leslie E. Grayson Professor of Business Administration and Gerry Yemen is a senior researcher at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.