Forgive me for generalization, but Eastern Europeans are very direct in their communications. We don’t really think about whether we hurt someone’s feelings or not. We believe that everyone should just toughen up. On the other hand, American culture is more reserved; people are so put-together and they think twice before speaking out loud. This difference in personality and culture makes it a little more challenging for Eastern Europeans to adjust to the American work culture.
I would like to compare American workplace culture to the Eastern European one. Let’s say in Georgia (yes it’s a small country, not a state, let’s talk about this topic later), if you have gained a little bit of weight over the holidays, your teammate will make sure to let you know that they have noticed. If you are not performing well at your job, it is ok to get yelled at by your supervisor. On the other hand, it is also perfectly normal to have intense arguments during the staff meetings if you have a different opinion. The language we use is “you have to do this”, or “this is what it needs to be done” versus people in the US saying “could please take care of this” or “do you mind working on this project”. Even the pitch of our voice is different. It’s a higher pitch. Sometimes I’m scared that I come off too loud, which also won’t score me any points. I’m afraid that my attitude may come off as being rude. I’m afraid that I might say something that accidentally offends someone. I’m afraid I may have interrupted someone because in my culture we always interrupt each other.
Also, smile. In the US, even if you have had the worst day of your life, you can’t be sad in front of your colleagues. You have to smile and pretend to be positive and say that everything is going great. While in Eastern Europe it is ok to be sad at work. When people ask how you are doing, it is ok to complain about all the problems you have had over the course of your life.
For Eastern Europeans being outspoken and opinionated comes naturally. Therefore, we have to do a lot of pretending and utilize our existent or non-existent acting skills to fit in. Every day we have to remind ourselves to keep our opinions to ourselves, and express less emotion. Otherwise, we will face the danger of coming off as unprofessional, and not fit for the American work environment.
I’ve noticed the same culture in the US higher education system. Back home, I was used to professors clearly telling me when I was wrong. In the US academic system, well at least at a tertiary level, every opinion was valued even if it was wrong. I would sit in the classroom in the US and my classmate would say something in class that was completely against the principles we were taught. I would roll my eyes while my professor would thank that person for his/her opinion and just move on. I couldn’t understand back then, how the professor could keep calm when hearing that opinion. Apparently, that is called professionalism.
So, to conclude, one recommendation to all my Eastern Europeans out there is to dial down on the personality, be neutral and pretend to be a put-together person. Your attitude, words you use, eye contact, voice pitch, all that contributes to you being a professional, and we all have to master that.