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When Cultural Values Clash: The case for self-promotion

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From the Senior Job Fair to the first annual Babson India Symposium to Latin American Forum, springtime on campus is abuzz with opportunities for networking. With large scale networking events, success comes when you are able to differentiate yourself from the pack by “selling” yourself and communicating your “personal brand”. Easy enough for those of us who have been honing this skill from a young age; who have been raised in an individualistic culture where we are taught to be proud of our personal accomplishments and individual contributions. But this act of self-promotion is not universal and sometimes even in direct opposition to values some consider most important; like humility, modesty, and self-control.

In an article entitled “Self-Promotion for Professionals from Countries where Bragging is Bad,” Dorie Clark, Marketing Strategist and Andy Molinsky, Brandeis Professor and author of Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process (HBR Press, 2013) point out that “almost every culture has its own metaphor about what happens to people who are judged by their peers to be overreaching.” “In India, it’s crabs in a bucket — the one who tries to escape is pulled down by his compatriots. In Australia, it’s tall poppies — and the tallest one gets its head whacked off. In Japan, the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”

So if you are someone who cringes every time you have to face a potential employer or networking contact to deliver your “pitch,” consider the following tips from Clark and Molinsky:

 Rebrand the Act of Personal Rebranding  If the idea of drawing attention to yourself and your achievements seems distasteful, try re-framing the act. Instead of thinking of it as blatant self-promotion, consider who else might benefit from your efforts. For example, if you’re connecting with an alum, you’re helping Babson engage the alumni community and forge partnerships with potential business leaders. If you’re speaking with an employer at a networking event about your impact in a student club, you’re spreading awareness about the organization’s goals.

Authenticity Matters Sometimes self-promotion is misunderstood as salesmanship; that you need to present yourself in a certain way to appear attractive to “buyers” and you’re willing to sacrifice your true self in the process. However, personal branding is quite the opposite as it requires careful self-assessment to realize where you excel, where you could improve, and what your true value added is. Being authentic is also an opportunity to honor the mentors, teachers, and parents who have helped to shape the person you have become. By thinking about personal branding as an homage to the time and effort those individuals put into your personal development, the act can feel more legitimate.

Strike a Compromise with Yourself As you hear success stories and adjust to the U.S. style of communication, you are likely to see some of the benefits of self-promotion. Find a way to tailor your approach so that it feels more natural. Molinsky gives an example of a student from a culture which emphasized the group over the individual. At Babson where group projects are the norm, it may feel more comfortable to talk about your individual achievements within the context of what the group as a whole was able to achieve. Try a variety of approaches and find what works best for you.

It is important to remember that these adjustments go both ways. For example, if you are a U.S. student working or studying abroad, you may find that you need to adopt a more indirect style of communication to be heard. In any scenario, changing your behavior may seem in conflict with your personal values. Remember these guidelines to ensure that you are true to yourself, but are also getting noticed for all that you do.

Original article available through Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2014/03/self-promotion-for-professionals-from-countries-where-bragging-is-bad/

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