This is the 4th installment of This is Not Advice, a not-advice column for paid subscribers of What Works. Already a paid subscriber? Thank you! If you’re not, enjoy the first half of this essay (audio or written) or upgrade your subscription to access the whole thing.
Today's question comes from a Brazilian living in the US, working as a contractor at a tech company. They gave me a bunch of interesting questions to think about, but this one gives me an opportunity to share something I think about quite a bit but haven't gotten the chance to write about much:
As a foreigner, how much should I adapt myself to fit the culture?
It feels like tons of storytelling, not so much story-doing.
I love this question because I am in no way qualified to weigh in on this, being an American who has never lived outside the country. And, at the same time, I am intimately familiar with the contours of figuring out how to exist in a culture that often doesn't make sense to me. So allow me to come at this from a different angle.
“Foreigners” in Any Society
Jim Sinclair, an autism rights activist, penned the deeply moving essay, "Don't Mourn for Us," which I highly recommend everyone reads. There are a couple of lines in it that nail my experience of autistic life:
It takes more work to communicate with someone whose native language isn't the same as yours. And autism goes deeper than language and culture; autistic people are "foreigners" in any society.
Here, Sinclair is not proposing a sort of travel guide for autistic people. They don't present a set of tips for adapting to non-autistic culture. In fact, they're not addressing autistic people at all.
Sinclair is writing for non-autistic people—specifically parents who respond to their child's autism diagnosis with a sense of loss and grief. Instead of "push[ing] for the things your expectations tell you are normal," Sinclair suggests, "approach respectfully, without preconceptions, and with openness to learning new things, and you'll find a world you could never have imagined."
Sinclair concedes that connecting with an autistic person takes more work than connecting with a non-autistic person. But they also point out that they're only asking for the same kind of effort that autistic people put in every day. Non-autistic people can relate and communicate with us—"unless non-autistic people are far more limited than we are in their capacity to relate."
I freaking love that line.
Each of us who does learn to talk to you, each of us who manages to function at all in your society, each of us who manages to reach out and make a connection with you, is operating in alien territory, making contact with alien beings. We spend our entire lives doing this. And then you tell us that we can't relate.
What I'm trying to say is that someone who wasn't born in the United States is already putting in a great deal of work to navigate life here.
On a daily basis, they're filtering the cultural instincts they've picked up over a lifetime through the perception of Americans. Layer in work culture, and there's even more effort required.
It's similar to the kind of work that Black people, people of color, disabled people, queer people, chronically ill people, fat people, and people who belong to all manner of marginalized groups do every day. It's what many people don't get about diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts at work. DEI isn't only about making different people feel comfortable and included at work.
DEI work is also about helping people from the dominant culture shoulder a bit more of the cognitive burden.
How can historically underestimated people fully contribute if they're also straining to translate themselves to become legible to the dominant culture?