The Complexity of Social Skills in a Foreign Context

I have always been a direct person. This may not be surprising when looking at the bigger picture of my Russian- Israeli background and overall family upbringing. However, a person who doesn’t know me or the context of those cultures doesn’t have this big picture. Such is life.

It took me 10 years of living in the United States to learn the important skill of being tactful. I worked long and hard on it because I understood the following:  if you want to say something negative that will not add any value to the situation, what’s the point of saying it? It’s better to keep it to yourself.

Now I’m at the next level of my emotional development. I realized a few years ago that people don’t want to hear the truth, they just want to hear the answer they are expecting. A simple example is of a woman asking her boyfriend “Do I look fat?”, of course she expects “no, you look great!”. If he says this to her, everyone is happy. But, if he says no, she feels bad, he feels bad because she feels bad and overall happiness is diminished.

Similarly, in a country like Brazil, where the emotional realm is much stronger than the rational one, I find myself increasingly more in situations where a superior asks me for my opinion, but in fact, he or she just wants me to repeat his or her own opinion and show admiration to his or her ideas. And again, I reach this point where if I disagree, everyone’s happiness diminishes. I should just agree, nod, accept and move on. But, it’s just so hard to do.

First of all because at times, opinions and perceptions may have consequences for others, and agreeing means incriminating others while saving myself. So there is an issue of ethics and integrity.

Secondly, there is a more complex problem of the inherit bias we face as foreigners. Everyone passes on judgment on anything you do, attributing your actions and opinions to your country of origin. “Aha! – she doesn’t agree because she’s American, and Americans think differently than us.”  Brazilians tend to do this a lot. They attribute your opinions to you NOT being Brazilian and therefore, by default, disagreement is your fault, since you don’t understand the Brazilian context.  But in reality, the situation doesn’t have anything to do with the Brazilian or not Brazilian context. It’s easier for them to reject your opinion this way, instead of considering the option that you may be actually right and they are wrong. What can one do in such situation? Agree with their opinion, of course.  You know if you disagree they will think you’re being inflexible, arrogant, and overall questioning their position. Disagreeing will not lead anywhere.  In the end, everyone is happy, but you feel like you just lost a piece of yourself. Especially, since you know that you’re hired because and not despite being foreigner.

In short, this is the dilemma I am facing these days. How do I accommodate people’s emotional needs without losing my integrity or personality?

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