What I Have Learned From Working With Americans

What I Have Learned From Working With Americans
Photo Credit: Ben Smith @Flickr CC BY SA 2.0

I’ve been super busy with work lately.

Starting with the honeymoon period at a new job, followed by ConCalls with people on the other side of the world, memorizing a bunch of jargon and going through endless procedures of a startup about to launch, getting out of bed every day is a nightmare.

During the first month at my new job, I would answer texts while waiting for the light to turn green. The rest of the time my brain was just stuffed and didn’t have room for extra romance and gossip. My time was used for spacing out and thinking about work.

I had a meeting with my boss one day and caught a glimpse of 500 unread emails on her computer screen. This reminded me of how the people I have worked for since I arrived in the States all replied to only some of their emails.

I silently thought to myself, “Why are white people so lazy and always making those who work under them spend so much time chasing after them to make arrangements?"

I said to my boss, “You really have a lot of emails,” while really thinking, “Why aren’t you reading or replying to any of your emails?"

My boss said, “Yeah. I get so many emails every day.”

I replied, “I feel the same way. I’m always spending an hour or two replying emails.”

My boss answered, “It’s impossible to read all of them. I gave up a long time ago. It’s fine as long as I finish doing what’s important. Not to mention that I’m a mom. There’s no way I can take care of everything personally. Don’t you think so?”

I stammered, “Uh…right!”

This is the first boss that told me I didn’t have to answer emails carefully. (My boss is in fact the kind of person who can even forget to show up at meetings.)

She is a very ardent Jewish mother who picks up her children at five pm sharp every day after work. The work she cares about is always done efficiently, but there are also a lot of things she never follows up on. Some cases are done well while others are sloppy. My boss’s boss is the same way, but was just promoted to VP.

This bothered me for a couple of days.

As a hardworking and polite Taiwanese, there has never been an unread email in my inbox since I started working. Even if I didn’t reply instantly, I would also read through it for the sake of the sender.

I never understand why some people are able to have a good career through not working especially hard and merely taking it the easy way. So when I was tapping furiously away at my keyboard in the middle of the night, I could only keep telling myself that I was a good person with a clear conscious.

But I couldn’t stand it any longer one day and asked my husband, “Why are Americans so lazy? They spend all their time in meetings and never do anything. They never work on tasks that are no use to them."

He replied, “What’s wrong with that? We all choose to do things according to the 80/20 rule. You go to work to make money, not to make friends or work for your colleagues. If you want to be promoted, you need to let your boss like you or be manipulative. If you want to be able to take care of your family, then you need to come up with multiple ways to get off work early. After all, is working hard for your company more important or spending time with your family?"

I said, “You’re right, but it’s not something I’m able to do."

He said, “It doesn’t matter. Work in large companies is probably not your thing. Maybe you should try to stay in small or medium businesses, start up a company of your own or become a freelancer. These jobs are more about abilities and not politics."

Photo Credit: Mad Wraith @Flickr CC BY 2.0

Photo Credit: Mad Wraith @Flickr CC BY 2.0

Thinking about this makes me feel ashamed.

Back when I was in business school, all I paid attention to was what was marketing, how to discuss strategies, how to create Power Points and other related basic skills.

So after work, I would often be frustrated with those that didn’t necessarily work harder, but were still promoted along the way. It was not until recently did I finally realize internal communication was a form of politics itself. Being able to easily work within an organization means doing what matters most or working under the 80/20 principle.

Americans only fight for cases that are strategic and will have a large impact. Everything else isn’t important and only the result matters. This is the exact opposite of how the Taiwanese work.

The Taiwanese were affected by Japanese education early on, and are polite, humble, meticulous, hands-on and hard working. Americans, on the other hand, often confront people face to face and ignore those who make no contributions.

I have worked for several years in Taiwan, and often forget about the cultural differences between these two countries. There’s no good or bad to this, only what kind of workplace suits you better. Most Americans have charisma and emphasize on strategies while Asians generally work hard. Different personalities and backgrounds derive into different cultures.

The environment in the United States is currently very competitive, mainly because there are all kinds of people with their own strengths. I often joke with my husband that the States wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for meticulous Chinese like us or Mexicans.

But then again, Americans do not respect those who only know how to nod their heads. Being silent usually means you don’t have any ideas and you should know when not to be led by the nose when interacting with those who make demands.

23-year-old A in our company already understands this. Being highly appreciated by his boss, a lot of his work overlaps with other departments, so he gets different requests at work every day.

A new colleague, B, once wrote a letter asking A to do something and we witnessed the exchange of emails; B using all he had to make A do this and that, while A responded with all sorts of tactics. A would drag on in responding and then fire back suddenly.

I asked him curiously, “Why not just go do whatever B’s asking you to do? It would only take you less than an hour.”

A said with a smile of victory, “Why would I do something that’s not part of my job? If I do whatever he asks me to do, then I’m just a secretary that works for every one."

If you do everything but don’t consider if it will affect what you’re supposed to do, or if you do everything without your own opinions and innovation, or if you do everything but your boss takes no notice, then it’s easy to turn your work into useless.

The first time I was praised by my boss was when I emailed our Sales Director an email saying no. I was so nervous when I was typing it out, but my husband kept encouraging me, saying that I was half way to success if I wrote the email well.

After I spent ten minutes writing a ruthless email saying no and a hundred reasons why, my boss asked me to go into the office and gave me a thumbs up, saying this proved my abilities.

I couldn’t help think after a month of working hard and coming up with new innovative marketing strategies, integrating procedures, establishing good relations with clients were nothing compared to those ten minutes.

I might still need to take some time to understand what is important and what is not, according to the way white people work.

While we are burying ourselves in work and carrying out the Taiwanese spirit of working hard, we need to pinch ourselves to remind us that we are in America and we need to learn how to work the American way when we are working with the people here.

The author of this article has authorized publication. The original text was published here.

Translated by Olivia Yang