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Can You Fit In Too Much?

The signals were all around me. After a few months of being in India, my wife and I were invited to a dinner with a group of other expats. We had intentionally avoided these kinds of gatherings at first because we knew they could be addictive and also prevent us from really diving into the culture.

But something seemed harmless about this one, so we went.

A few nights later, I got a call from an American man at the dinner who had been living in India for the past 10 years. He told me directly that I was trying to be too Indian. He said from my clothes to the way I was speaking, everything about me came across as a sign that I was trying too hard.

Then there was the time at the job interview I was told very directly that if I was to join the company, I would need to stop bobbling my head like some Indians do.

Then we visited some other expatriate friends in Asia, they immediately brought to my attention that my accent started to sound funny.

Could it have been that I was trying too hard to fit into my new culture?

Fine Lines

Many people use the term “going native” to describe moving to a new culture and living and acting exactly like locals do. The idea is that you will endear yourself to the culture faster and be able to adapt more quickly. You adopt everything you can about the new culture: dress, shopping habits, speech, communication style, etc.

The other end of the spectrum is that you change nothing. You celebrate the same holidays in the same ways. You watch the same movies you did back home. You stuff your suitcase filled with things like candy, toothpaste, and peanut butter. You spend all your free time catching up with family and friends back home, and looking at your local news websites.

Anyone can see that both of these strategies have their shortcomings. What most people can’t see is how it plays out in our own lives, and we sometimes need someone to come along and correct us.

In choosing when to completely change and when to remain the same, your host country will be a big determinant in this decision. Is your new home very tight, or very loose? In a tight culture like Saudi Arabia, keeping your tradition of singing Christmas carols door-to-door might not be a good idea. However, if you are in a loose culture like Thailand, it is much less likely that anyone will care about your random singing in the streets.

Once you know what kind of culture you are living in, the important thing to remember is that you don’t make this decision once and then forget about it. The choice of when to change and when to not change is often very situational, and there will be times when a decision is better for one person compared to another.

Here are some guidelines to help you know when to take up the local way of doing things, and when you should stick to the way you are used to.