I’m an alien – not from outer space – but from a different country and even though I’ve been here for over 5 years, I’m still considered a resident alien. In my culture people tell it like it is but you’re a little more subtle here. At work I find people just don’t come right out say what they think; they dance around a bit and it’s very frustrating for someone like me who just blurts out an answer without thinking of 100 different ways to say it and the consequences of each one. Like yesterday, my boss asked me how a project was coming and all I said was, “I’m working as fast as I can.” Next thing you know I’m being called insubordinate. When someone asks me how something’s coming I’m assuming they want to know how soon it will be completed. I couldn’t give a hard and fast time so I told him I was working as fast as I could. I don’t mean to be rude but I just don’t get it. How do I figure this out before I make a real ass of myself?
–Jordana, Albuquerque, New Mexico
It is true that people are much more conflict avoiding in the American workplace, and it is often quite difficult to ascertain what they are really saying. My advice is to ask for clarification whenever possible about what is being said. For example, you might inquire in what respects you were insubordinate, and then find out how to address the concern going forward. Another way of saying this is that each culture has its own assumptions about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. The more you can find out about these assumptions, the more conscious you can be about whether you are violating them or not.