Social media cross-culturally: US ≠ ROW…

I recently read an[other] article in the New York Times/IHT about social media, how too much online information is shared within a business context. Written by an executive coach(!), she touches upon the corporate challenges of too much openness, and has even created an acronym, which she calls OSD, Obsessive Sharing Disorder(!!). Click here for the article.

What caught my eye was a single cross-cultural comment, and reflected on how many navel-gazing articles emanate from the US.

The author had mentioned to a British colleague she was now seeing “that many Americans were starting to realize that they reveal way too much about themselves.” He gave a full-throated laugh and said, “Finally!”


It is not technology that makes everyone talk more about themselves. Social media highlights what many Americans have always done. Unlike many Asians or Europeans, Americans are more apt to talk openly about their lives, with strangers or friends. It’s a long-standing cultural tradition, I suppose, from US Presidents revealing their inner self (or external, when LBJ lifted up his shirt to reporters to show his surgical scars) to seatmates whose life stories surface during a plane ride, celebrities or criminals telling all..

The ‘hail fellow well met’ profile is what makes Americans endearing–the generosity and gregariousness to others. It is also antithetical to non Americans–a quick slap on the back, the bonhomie and seeming lack of transparency. In Asia, it is not likely for people to openly or readily share personal details. (I’m talking relative, not absolute, terms.)

I’m American, work and live in Asia, and think I get both sides reasonably well.

Culture still matters greatly, and such articles–especially when read globally are too US-centric to easily fit elsewhere. Today’s companies want to think and act globally, but may still lack perspective. Many management articles and coaching tips I read tilt towards a US style of communication; more direct and open–almost pugnacious. That alone merits more attention, ie, how to talk or share cross-culturally when one thinks the way they’ve done it back home is the way to do it globally.. Uh-uh.

I would, however, agree with the author’s first bullet point, which is:

Before you open your mouth about your personal life, ask yourself:

• Who’s listening to me (a boss, a client, a colleague or a friend)?

That is ‘business politics 101’, and merits reinforcing. Know your surrounding, know your audience, know how to listen more than talk, agree more than not, and take your time. Relationships–anywhere in the world–cannot be done without talking. That is why social media cannot foster friendships.

Acquaintanceships, yes, and good ones too. But only friendships/relationships – personal or professional – with requisite obligations, are done by talking and listening, preferably face to face. But not by sharing too much too soon, especially at work.

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