Overcoming Cultural Barriers To Jobs

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The foreign-born population in the U.S. is now at an all time high — more than 10 percent. And while recession-time jobs are hard to come by for Americans, for residents of the States born overseas, finding work here can be even tougher. Workers from China and Afghanistan say learning American small talk can make all the difference.

GUY RAZ, Host:

Here in the United States, the foreign-born population is at an all-time high, above 10 percent. And while recession-time jobs are hard to come by for Americans, finding a job can be even tougher for those born overseas. Reporter Sally Herships discovered that for these people, small talk can make a big difference.

SALLY HERSHIPS: Wei Phang(ph) wants a job, but he says interviewing is painful. He's uncomfortable promoting himself. Phang is from outside Shanghai.

WEI PHANG: In China, the employers like the employees to be hard-working and quiet. They want you to speak only when they want you to speak.

HERSHIPS: Phang is getting his MBA at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, and he's looking for a job in the States, but for foreigners, schmoozing, small talk, promoting yourself, things Americans take for granted, can be tricky.

I asked Phang how he felt during his first few job interviews here.

PHANG: Blind.

HERSHIPS: You felt blind?

PHANG: Yeah, lost, actually, when I was in the conversation. I don't know where to go next.

HERSHIPS: This type of cultural anxiety can cost dearly at interview time. Brandeis is among the American business schools offering new programs to help train students. Today is the last day of class. Students from around the world are setting up their final projects, opening laptops and taping posters to the walls.

In a corner, Isaac Indalawa(ph) stops to talk with Sheila Mutamba(ph). Her project is learning to make American-style small talk.

ISAAC INDALAWA: Can I ask you something?

SHEILA MUTAMBA: Yeah?

INDALAWA: So, after all this, do you intend to take this back home?

MUTAMBA: Yes, I do because I think small talk is very important.

HERSHIPS: Indalawa is from Uganda, Mutamba from Rwanda. Both say in the parts of Africa they come from, you don't get chatty with strangers. Mutamba says now, after a semester's practice, she's becoming more confident, but she says her first time making small talk was very different.

MUTAMBA: I remember that very clearly because it was very hard. Just because I'm black, I can't blush, but I was really feeling very awkward and very embarrassed.

HERSHIPS: And you said you can't blush, but did your face feel warm?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MUTAMBA: Yeah.

HERSHIPS: As part of a homework assignment, Mutamba says she did something an American might not think twice about: turned to a neighbor in a restaurant and started talking about the weather.

MUTAMBA: So, I kept trying to talk, but I have all these things in my head. And I'm trying to be appropriate. I'm trying not to be nosey.

HERSHIPS: Back home, she says, things are more conservative. If a woman approaches a man, it could seem suggestive.

ANDREW MOLINSKY: They don't know the script; they don't know the rules.

HERSHIPS: That's Andrew Molinsky, the professor who created the Brandeis program. Molinsky says even when workers are qualified, if they don't know what the norms are, they can end up looking socially incompetent, like a Russian engineer he worked with. She had 17 unsuccessful job interviews. Molinsky says she was extremely qualified.

MOLINSKY: But she kept failing on the interview and she would get feedback that she wasn't a great fit.

HERSHIPS: The rules for appropriate behavior, says Molinsky, in a traditional Russian interview, are to be honest, modest and serious. The engineer told him smiling was inappropriate.

MOLINSKY: All this silly, friendly behavior, if you smile in my culture like this, you look like a fool.

HERSHIPS: But in our culture, it gets you a job.

MOLINSKY: That's right, or at least it gives you a chance.

HERSHIPS: Michael Morris is a professor at Columbia Business School. He says in an increasingly global economy, all workers need to learn to manage across cultures - Americans, too.

MICHAEL MORRIS: Despite all the advantages, all the good luck of being born an American, having this great educational system, an affluent country, this is one disadvantage.

HERSHIPS: Well all need to catch up, says Morris, if we want to be global leaders.

For NPR News, I'm Sally Herships.

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