Navigating a New Culture: A Q&A With Thailand's Fulbright Director
Since 1946, the Fulbright Program has created opportunities for international students, researchers, and professors to spend time in the U.S. and vice versa. It’s an exchange of people, knowledge, and skills that bridges cultures and enhances understanding around the world.
As Executive Director of the Thai Fulbright Foundation (called the Thailand-U.S. Educational Foundation, or TUSEF), Porntip Kanjananiyot plays an integral part in that process, helping Thai and American Fulbright grantees navigate the workplace in a culture that’s vastly different than their own.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to snag an interview with Kanjananiyot. If you’ve ever worked in a new place, or even thought about it, read on for her advice on surviving in a new culture, getting out of your comfort zone, and staying true to your roots.
Much of your work focuses on bridging cultures between nations. What advice would you give to someone looking to launch a career in a vastly different culture than her own?
In today’s world, cultures are a mixture of everything from everywhere. So, the first step is knowing who you are and your own roots—your own unique identity. Once you have that knowledge and understanding, you can better respect and appreciate other cultures.
It’s also important to really have strong listening and observational skills, which will help you catch on to a new culture more easily.
Are there any there challenges that are specific to women in a cross-cultural career path?
In general, women may have to work harder to gain recognition; we’re often stereotyped as overly sensitive and indecisive. That said, in many cases, I have found that being a woman is an advantage. It’s been easier for me to gain trust with our grantees—they seem more comfortable talking and consulting with a “sister” rather than a “brother.” But in general, of course, being a woman is not a precondition to success or failure—your success depends on your leadership skills and personality.
In your lectures, you often talk about stepping out of the sabai box (one’s comfort zone). Why is this so important when working in another culture?
We all feel uncomfortable when we first have to do something different or unusual, but it’s important to have the courage to step out and see more of the world, and have those opportunities for learning and personal and professional growth.
It’s all about enjoying new things, absorbing differences with flexibility, and reaching cross-cultural understanding. If we lock ourselves in our sabai box, we miss out on those outside opportunities—and, of course, on a lot of fun!
In your career, how have you managed to stay assertive and strong while maintaining that kind and pleasant smile that’s vital in Thai culture?
Actually, I don’t think they’re at odds. Being assertive and strong doesn’t necessarily mean aggressive—we can share our viewpoints and reasoning in a discussion. Although we might not always get everything we want in the end, the point is to listen and help each other get the job done. We have to be flexible and adapt.
In American workplaces, we're often outspoken and can seem brash compared to the gentle way of Thailand. How can an employee get her voice heard while avoiding confrontation?
This depends much on the culture of individual organizations and even more on the organizational leadership. In some Thai settings, it may be a challenge for younger employees to express ideas as freely as they wish to. They may need to force themselves to think and talk faster while voicing out in a polite, yet assertive way.
What are you and the TUSEF Team working on now?
We recently created a TV show (see a clip here) that was the very first attempt at promoting a culture of reading to the Thai people, especially to students. To engage students, we need to make sure that activities are both educational and entertaining. A typical seminar won't work, so we thought we’d use the experience of our Fulbright Board, grantees, alumni, and friends and combine them into a talk show. Its goal was to teach young people how to read, what to get from their favorite books, and which types could be most inspirational.
If you could travel back in time, what lessons would you tell your younger self about the working world? What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned?
I’d tell myself not to be afraid to try something new, to go out to see the wider world.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that life isn’t what you expect it to be. Enjoy the twists and turns of it, as each step gives you the experience to move more firmly forward.
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