A question of culture: assimilate or die?

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Time to look at culture from an employee’s point of view

A couple of years ago, I attended a evening of talks at China Exchange, a charity based in London’s Chinatown whose mission it is to create ways of exploring Chinese culture and China’s influence on the world.

This one-night-only event featured five speakers who had eight minutes each on their allotted subject followed by questions from the audience. They covered a range of topics from Chinese medicine (what is it really?), Hinkley Point C and the role of Chinese investment, feminism in China and the opportunity that Chinese tourists represent for the British economy.



I know very little about China and Chinese culture. During an emerging market project about two and half years ago, I was surprised by the level of Chinese investment in large infrastructure projects in Africa and I’ve only had limited exposure to ‘Chinese’ medicine. Needless to say I found it an educational and thought-provoking evening.

But the eight minutes that really left me thinking were delivered by Dr Victor Fan, a Senior Lecturer at King’s College. His topic was ‘white washing’ in the entertainment industry i.e. non-Asian people playing Asian roles. It was every bit as interesting as the others but it was when he spoke about his experience of getting a visa to live and work in Quebec, Canada – one that specified that he would speak French and adopt local practices – that something struck a chord.

In 2015, I became a British citizen and across the 30 or so of us in the room agreeing to honour queen and country, 21 different nationalities were represented. At the time I marveled at what an extraordinary thing it was to live in a community which welcomed such cultural diversity.

But one of the biggest challenges I experienced was trying to assimilate without losing myself. How much of my Australian-Dutch directness should I hold on to? How many peculiarities of language – words, pace, pronunciation – should I adopt? It’s all very well to say you should be yourself but when you have been living in one culture for 34 years, isn’t turning up on another country’s doorstep and expecting it to fashion itself around you and your idiosyncrasies presumptuous and entitled?

I came to think about it like this. When I’m invited to someone’s house, they make an effort to make me feel comfortable and at home. But there’s a limit to how ‘at home’ I would ever make myself. I mean would you turn up at someone’s house, ‘crap’ all over their decor / tastes / habits and demand that they accommodate all of your whims and fancies? If you don’t like it, then don’t go.

Now consider that from a company perspective.

The internet has made the world feel very accessible, a place where you can go anywhere you want. But in reality we don’t have the right to go and be wherever we choose. It’s up to each organisation to set its own tone and decide what it wants its cultural jigsaw to be. But it’s also in their interests to work out how to embrace the cultures in which they operate and to maintain diversity of thought to create the outcomes needed for sustained success.

So the question remains: How far should we go to assimilate within an organisation versus defending our ‘personal’ culture’s right to survive? What should your new organisation demand of you and how do you balance the books in such an exchange?



Should we assimilate or should we ‘die’?

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