Cultural Differences in the US Workplace, Beyond Biases and False Beliefs
Written by Mariateresa Romeo
We must admit that cultural integration in the workplace is more than just a language problem
According to the Observatory of Francesca Parvizyar International Events, the United States is the most sought-after destination for Italian professionals who want to work abroad. The AIRE (Registry of Italians Residing Abroad) data confirms that Italian talent is drained toward the US labor market. Between 2020 and 2022, Italian residents in the United States have grown by more than 5%, despite the pandemic and the challenging underlying market conditions.
The reasons Italians, like many other professionals worldwide, seek job opportunities in the United States are evident, and much has been said about it. The dynamic US labor market, the possibilities for a career breakthrough, and the desirable economic conditions lead many professionals to strive for a job in the United States. The main obstacle is finding the right pathway to move to the US. However, contrary to the common belief, not all Italians have a successful career in the US corporate environment right away, and it takes time to familiarize themselves with the American work culture.
The main cultural challenges in the US workplace
I belong to the two hundred thousand professionals who left their job in Italy to seek better career opportunities in the United States. One of the most common and “silly” questions I have always been asked is whether people work more in Italy or the US. My answer is always the same: it is not a matter of working hours but a different way of working. Working in the US requires cross-cultural integration, meaning that individuals from other backgrounds must adopt the dominant culture’s beliefs, mindset, and behaviors, and this is a process we must follow intentionally.
I had the opportunity to discuss settling down in the US workplaces with many Italians living in the United States. We have found ourselves increasingly agreeing on the many opportunities but also obstacles we have met in our relationships with colleagues, clients, and leaders.
But to go beyond the risks of stereotypes and the limits of personal experiences, last year, I launched a project to analyze the integration into the American work culture by surveying Italian professionals who shared a significant amount of work experience in the States, such as having lived and worked in the country or taking part in or coordinating international projects with US-based companies.
The survey results contributed to debunking false beliefs and provided good insights to fellow Italians preparing to take on new opportunities in the United States.
First, we must admit that cultural integration in the workplace is more than just a language problem.
Undoubtedly, cross-language barriers are one of the most common challenges Italians must solve. Even people in international working contexts who have passed language exams with flying colors will, sooner or later, come up against the use of expressions, slang, and acronyms they don’t always understand. Learning these linguistic features is part of integrating into any culture – not just in the US – and it requires time and significant commitment.
But there is much more than this. The survey showed that different problem-solving approaches could hinder teamwork and collaboration in a star-spangled workplace.
Some interviewees, for example, shared that they had to learn to follow the American approach to problems, which is practical, operational, and focused on costs and deadlines, while originally, they used a more analytical and detailed approach, which required more time as it focused more on the outcomes. Although these affirmations might sound based on stereotypes, there is a basis of truth. Problem-solving comes from the perspective we use to examine a particular problem, and several factors, such as our background, creativity, and way of processing the information, influence it. It is not a casualty that people from different cultural backgrounds approach a problem differently.
Another aspect to be considered is the difference in career paths and professional profiles, especially in the corporate environment between Italy and the US. This makes communication and, most of all, collaboration difficult to approach. We expect others to show some behaviors or competencies based on the job description and the responsibilities they usually cover in Italian companies, and we get caught off guard when we realize Americans conceive those roles in a different way and people with the same title have different competency levels, skills, and seniority in the US organizations.
We must adjust our mindset and develop new communication and relationship skills to integrate into the American work culture. In fact, it is not a coincidence that more and more international companies include intercultural coaching and training in their relocation packages for ex-pat employees and their families. To be successful in a work environment, we need to become part of it, adapt our communication style and tone, and share common behaviors and practices.
Published by La Voce di New York on May 29th, 2023
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