“Why are you saying sorry? You didn’t do anything wrong,” My American manager sounded bemused by my overly apologetic self.
I had just apologized for asking a question about a project she assigned. I didn’t want to intrude upon her when she looked so deeply involved in her work.
“It’s silly that you’re apologizing for asking questions,” she continued. “You’re supposed to be doing that at your level. Only say sorry if you did something wrong.”
Countless variations of the same exchange have taken place since I started my first job in the trenches of corporate America.
Always the same remark from several higher-ups: “You should never apologize for anything unless it was legitimately your fault. Otherwise, you may end up giving your colleagues an actual reason to doubt your professional abilities. Worse still, they may never take your word seriously.”
My manager meant well, but inside I felt incredibly naïve, as if I’d just been thrust into an unwanted, glaring spotlight that exposed all my professional and cultural vulnerabilities for the rest of my colleagues to see.
As a recent graduate, I’d never felt so maladjusted to the working world. And as a Filipina immigrant, I’d never felt so unfamiliar with the nuances of American culture and society.
I was always raised to believe in “pakikisama”, i.e., conforming to the other person’s presumed needs so as to facilitate good relations and avoid ruffling feathers. Not to mention, I’d never quite rid myself of that overhanging sense of Catholic guilt – the good ol’ religious reflex.
I never realized my harmless tendency to apologize could single me out in the American workplace as potentially incompetent and unworthy of serious attention. In order to succeed here, I would have to temporarily rein in my cultural reflex and instead verbalize confidence in my professional prowess.
There were other behavioral oddities that popped up every now and then during my professional interactions. I tried to cater to all of my supervisors’ demands in the vain attempt to please, without necessarily being realistic about my capacity to meet them.
I over-promised, over-committed. I said yes to a barrage of requests when I really meant no. Just like a classic professional ingénue, I spread myself too thin.
Sticking out like a sore thumb
It has always been in my character to ensure everyone’s needs are being met. But it is also ingrained in the Filipino culture: saying no or refusing a request outright risks coming across as rude or worse, unhelpful.
We Filipinos take pride in our ability to help and contribute positively to the team effort in the spirit of bayanihan (solidarity). Sometimes, we forget our own needs, or sublimate them towards the team’s collective need.
And so, my propensity towards over-apologizing, over-promising and over-committing in the workplace multiplied twofold – by sheer virtue of my being Filipino.
It wasn’t just these cultural traits that made me stick out like a sore thumb, either. My unfamiliarity with “mainstream” American pop culture references such as Justin Timberlake on “Saturday Night Live” (SNL), the “Brat Pack” movies and the mechanics of football or baseball unmasked me – faux pas by faux pas – as a bald-faced foreigner, albeit with a deceptively flawless American accent.
Funny how something as innocuous as the way you talk can instantly determine the way people treat and look at you.
While my accent was as “slang” as it could ever get, I still wasn’t American enough for some of my colleagues. Indeed, they may have even considered this a surprising, if somewhat uncomfortable, reality to contend with.
Fitting in and accommodating
Although I didn’t quite fit into the cultural fabric of the office, I eventually learned my experiences as a global nomad and Filipino immigrant could enlighten my professional transition in many ways.
Having lived in different countries, it became clearer to me that the corporate workplace functioned so much like a foreign culture, with its own unique set of behavioral rules and norms that necessitated one’s survival and success. This workplace dictated that one must do his or her best to fit in and stand out as little as possible.
Of course, being in a foreign culture also requires dealing with certain personalities that have been shaped to think and work in a way that reflects the culture itself. In the end, I couldn’t blame my colleagues for calling me out on apologizing too much, or, for that matter, knowing nothing about SNL.
As far as they were concerned, I was in the corporate world, and I also happen to be in America – I had to conform to what both cultures demanded of me, lest I risk destabilizing the cultural status quo.
In other words, I had to be careful about playing the Filipino card too often. This was not playing by the rules as far as the everyday working world was concerned. Although I knew at heart I would never identify as a cookie-cutter American, I also had to make sure I didn’t flaunt the cool, exotic, “foreigner” badge ad nauseam.
I’ve since learned to make my peace with these cultural expectations. In the end, I consider myself lucky to work for a globally-minded firm that prides itself on its culturally diverse talent and an extensive international network.
I look up to several superiors that are of color or come from cosmopolitan backgrounds. This cultural diversity is so much more than what other firms can offer, and honestly considered somewhat of a rarity for most top PR agencies.
The system is what it is. As long as I remain aware of this reality, I should be able to keep my head above water as I continue navigating my professional course. – Rappler.com
Originally from Quezon City, Manila, Maki Somosot is now based in Brooklyn, New York. She currently works in a public relations agency.