Understanding the Delicate Matter of Self-Promotion

Understanding the Delicate Matter of Self-Promotion


If you’re coming from a country that values modesty, it can be hugely difficult to integrate into a working culture where self-promotion is the way to get ahead. That’s the case for many foreigners entering into US workplaces. The US working culture values self-promotion far more than many other countries. So how do you get ahead in such a cultural environment, without compromising your personal values?

Individualistic cultures tend to encourage self-promotion but nowhere does so quite as much as the States. Although the UK shares both a language and an individualistic attitude with the US, there’s much more of a cultural tendency towards self-denigration in the UK.

Bragging is taboo, and anyone listing their own good qualities is likely to be quickly shamed for it. As the Harvard Business Review succinctly puts it: “if self-promotion is an art in the U.S., the corresponding art in the UK is self-deprecation.”

When it comes to self-promotion, it isn’t just UK workers that are retiring. A 2001 study found that there was no difference between the UK and Sweden when it comes to a reluctance to self-promote.

Finnish culture is notoriously modest, and many Asian cultures actively discourage self-promotion. To some extent, it’s US culture that’s unusual in this respect.

Gender also has a strong influence in how much a person pushes themselves forward. In most cultures there tends to be a view that confidence and self-promotion are more desirable male characteristics, whilst modesty and group-affiliation are more feminine ones.

This affects the behaviour of an individual, and also how that individual’s behaviour is perceived in the workplace. There’s much evidence that women tend to be penalised for the self-aggrandising behaviour that’s actually essential to get ahead in a workplace environment. These gender effects tend to persist across cultures.

How to reconcile cultural modesty with self-promotion

The HBR advises foreigners entering US workplaces to watch and learn before attempting to pick up the habit of self-promotion. “Because many foreign-born professionals are so shocked by American levels of self-promotion,” the review argues, “they often overestimate how much is being done”.

Even in American culture, there’s such a thing as boasting too much. So the first thing to do is really understand the level of promotion that’s appropriate in that environment, industry and workplace situation.

To talk of the US as a homogenous culture is to misunderstand this big country. Author Colin Woodward claims to have identified 11 separate cultures within the States; with very separate approaches to the thorny issue of self-promotion.

New Yorkers tend to be far keener to blow their own trumpets than the more modest Midwesterners. It’s important to understand the specific social rules for that area of the country. What works in a New York office may be less acceptable in Kansas or Iowa.

How to talk about you

The fact is, people need to be aware of your accomplishments if you’re to get ahead in life. And it’s quite often the case that you’re the only person who is going to tell them all about what you’ve achieved.

The trick is to learn how to do it without crossing your own boundaries of what’s acceptable – or making yourself out to be insufferable. That’s true whatever part of the world you’re in.

If you’re working as part of a team that knows you, it’s worthwhile getting into the habit of boasting about each other rather than about yourselves. That’s a useful trick for Brits and others from cultures that cringe at the idea of self-promotion, and it’s often a good way to sell your services as a team.

People are more inclined to believe praise from a third party so it’s also an effective strategy if you’re fortunate to be with colleagues that you trust in a supportive team.

Another way to make sure everyone knows what you’re capable of is to spin a good yarn about it. Although you may feel uncomfortable boasting for boasting’s sake, telling a story that’s humorous or relatable – and just happens to reflect your time leading a global team for a major multinational.

Stories work best if they are memorable, so focus on areas where you overcame difficulties or had unusual experiences. While you may start to feel more comfortable talking about your achievements, it’s still important to stay humble.

Although self-promoting cultures won’t wince to hear you talk about what you’ve achieved, this doesn’t stop them having a good nose for overselling. It’s important to be honest about what you’ve achieved.

If you’re keen to embrace the self-promoting culture of the States, be careful not to go overboard. Don’t be tempted to share all of your accomplishments in one go, or your conversation will sound like you’re reading from your own CV.

Perhaps the most important thing is to be entertaining and memorable. This may mean you only focus on the point that’s of most interest to your audience, as this is most likely to resonate and remain in their minds.

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