How to Stay Authentic in an Intercultural World?


Just before Washington, New York and Philadelphia ignited around the Pope’s visit, I actually attended an event about the Pope hosted by the National Geographic Society. Photographer David Yoder followed the pontiff for six months and created a wonderful book showing him in his everyday life. That evening, Yoder shared his experiences with us and discussed his favorite photos. One question that struck me the most was: “Is Pope Francis as authentic as he appears in the photographs?”. How to stay authentic in an intercultural world?

This question has been nagging me for many days now. How do you come across as being genuine while living in another culture? I was born in France and moved to Germany immediately after my studies. I have held dual French-German citizenship since 2009, and I have been living in the United States since 2013. During my career I have straddled different countries and cultures for 20 years, which I also explain to my clients. I tell my children that I translate the silences and the unsaid between other people.

How can you be yourself without offending others’ sensibilities? Without shocking them with colorful jokes like the French do? Without boring them with dreary details like the Germans? I am naturally open, smiling and friendly. It doesn’t go over well with every German but it doesn’t bother the Americans. In my work, I am still very much programmed to operate with German precision, which annoys the Americans and gives the French the impression that I’m lecturing them.

With experience, I have developed communication tactics that I also use in my private life. Unfortunately, its is difficult to change your character and to think of the best way to get what you want. In all cases, the more I master my communication style, the better the results.

7 tips to remain interculturally authentic

Here is my recipe, and like any recipe, everyone will add his or her personal touch to it. Less salt, more spice, another vegetable, etc. Notice here the culinary analogy that may somewhat challenge the Americans, who are more accustomed to sports analogies.

Know your environment and identify the differences

Knowing the differences and being able to adapt to them is certainly a key success factor. The human element, however, remains a fundamental component in business. While the Germans are proud of their objectivity, they are still human beings, for whom trust plays a strong role in their decision-making.

Understand the differences to better assimilate and accept them

Americans take their chances where we see a risk. When we consider the conquest of the United States, we can only admire their courage. Life was tough, the environment hostile – only the most persevering and most skillful survived. Everything was risky, given our perspective. For them, it was a chance to improve their situation.

Comparing is only a tool to help understanding and not to divide

It’s human nature to compare ourselves to others. Children do it instinctively, not wanting to be disadvantaged compared to their brothers and sisters. However comparisons must be done constructively, because comparing just to feel superior will only offend your partner.

I see the advantage of how roadwork is done in the United States. It’s never pre-announced, with one or two people assigned to opposite ends of a small section, each holding the same reversible sign displaying the words SLOW or STOP. In Germany, work is announced a few weeks before, and lights are used to alternate the traffic. What marks a greater level of professionalism is much less flexible. In the end, it’s better to have muddled work right away, than roadways planned to the millimeter forcing users to navigate around a huge hole in the middle of the road for days.

Set your expectations based on your environment.

I regularly work with European SMEs to help them grow their businesses overseas, including the French, German and American markets. One issue that resonates with my clients is the pace of business. In the United States, everything is much faster. This is not easy for a German company, which works in larger teams, and is therefore more difficult to move. The majority of Volkswagen personnel in the United States are locals. Despite their experience with the German parent company, they are often frustrated by what they see as a lack of responsiveness by their German colleagues.

Clarify each party’s expectations

In intercultural relationships, it is difficult to understand non-verbal communication. You may or may not believe in mediums, but it is unlikely that you will find any in the world of business. Unless you work with a specialist like me, (feel free to contact me here!), it is best to define each other’s expectations and favor open communication. I have never had a bad experience by being prepared and honest.

Do not label your partners

This remains the biggest pitfall to avoid and I don’t do a good job with this one either! Read my blog post called Americans don’t know how to drive! Of course some Americans know how to park and drive sensibly. My mother, may she rest in peace, was a real menace on the road. It is very easy to label people but don’t forget the old adage: “Don’t judge a book by its cover!”

Criticizing rarely helps make progress

Rare are those who have mastered the art of constructive criticism. It should be avoided! Be ready, however, to listen to the Germans, who are very direct. What you interpret as a criticism (“You are late”) is just a fact for them (“The meeting started at 8am”).

Where is the genuineness in all of this?

Well, it’s the recipe’s personal touch. I will leave you here with the words of a colleague, who has been a French expatriate since the age of 7, and who has lived in Europe, Latin America and the United States:

“…over time, I have carefully observed and learned to understand how people talk, joke, argue etc… Every culture has its codes that you must decipher before being able to speak “their language”. I have also learned to adapt to the situation and to the person, so I avoid using French sarcasm, at least for a while. Eventually, I get to know them without offending them but they also get to know me. Little by little, I reveal details about my culture, my way of arguing, of seeing life, etc… I test it, and if I see that my counterpart has an open mind, that we have “connected”, I continue and our relationship grows.”

Put my expertise to work for you! Contact me here and I will get back to you within 24 hours.

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  • Excellent post, Catherine.

    I live with this challenge all the time, so your words really resonate with me…

    The better & quicker we understand & embrace the ‘CODE’ of a new culture, the smoother our integration will be. The greater our success too, least not in business.

    Warm regards,


  • Thank you for sharing.. it’s so challenging on corporate to be authentic as they see you as an outcast..But one must stay true to self.. hope to see you soon back in the cities.

  • I like your post. I think for me it boils down to a two part equation. What is it I want to communicate and HOW is that going to be heard and therefore how do I need to adjust my part of that equation. I think that political correctness makes many who aren’t bi-cultural hesitant to consider how we are different. Different isn’t bad. Understanding the different culture norms goes a long long way in minimizing miscommunication which at the end of the day is pretty much the root of the vast majority of problems. You might call it “Making Deutsche Ordnung work for you.”

    • Great picture with the equation. Thank you, Peter. Not everybody loves doing math, and sometimes students need tutoring. Same for intercultural communication: when putting authenticity first can damage your business, I recommend intercultural training.

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