Failing at intercultural office politics.
April 13, 2016 2:04 AM   Subscribe

After working my butt off to build a life abroad, I'm worried that my inability to make friends at work is an un-fixable cultural issue. I have never been one of those super-incredibly popular people, but this is the first time in my life I've struggled to fit in/build a friend group, and I'm beginning to wonder if it's just an unavoidable moment in an expat's life, deliberate snubbing, or if something is actually psychologically wrong with me.

Since November 2014 I have worked in the marketing department of a large French company. This is not my first rodeo: I've lived here since 2011, did my master's degree at a French school, and have already worked in three other French organizations of varying sizes. By now I consider myself relatively well-versed in Gallic workplace etiquette: eating lunch as a group, saying "bonjour" to absolutely everyone in the office each morning, asking how their weekends were... These norms don't bother me for the most part, and I happily observe them. In professional matters, the majority of my colleagues seem fine with treating me like any other team member. (One notable exception is an individual who has consistently gone out of his way to let me know he resents my presence and feels that as an anglophone I do not belong in the department, apparently for reasons vaguely related to the evils of capitalism and the moon landing. But I digress.)

Professional politeness notwithstanding, I've been struggling to a) understand and b) find a strategy to deal with a tendency towards cliquishness that's developed in the department.

We're a relatively young group, and as a result the atmosphere is pretty...informal. Even my student job in a college dorm included less flirting, gossiping and boozing than the average week at my current job. I appreciate a good poop joke and think my coworkers are okay people, but I'm an introvert: unless I'm with my closest friends, sometimes I just prefer to chat for a couple hours, have a beer and go home.

Lately however, I'm beginning to think that this behavior is making me into the office pariah, and am afraid it also has something to do with the fact I'm the only non-French member of the department. My reluctance to participate in drunken karaoke nights or vicious criticism of one of the less popular managers (who is also my direct supervisor, has apparently resulted in my being cut out of staff social activities altogether: while there are various "clusters" of people who tend to hang together, everyone except me seems to be trading cat videos, attending the same exta-curricular functions, playing elaborate pranks on each other...and not inviting or involving me the way they do other staff members. I feel like a weirdo and a chump for being left out. This exclusion also feels like a professional failure: if part of my job is being "sociable" with my colleagues, my apparent ineptitude at it could hurt me down the line.

So I guess what I'm looking for input on is the following:

I really cannot tell anymore whether I've simply landed in a group with which I don't mesh personally, or if this is a clueless-foreigner issue. Did I miss a cue somewhere, and since I'm not 100% in on certain activities, I'm now irreversibly excluded from everything?

Could I improve things by going out of my way to be more "social" (something I'm reluctant to do on purpose because it feels like begging to be liked), or is it just my inherent sh*ttiness as an introvert/nerd/anglophone that's working against me? (On the off-chance a French person should read this and care to respond, did you ever have a foreign co-worker who was SO UNBEARABLY AWKWARD and clueless that you couldn't stand him/her, and what could s/he have done to get on better?)

I'm honestly reaching the point where I'm thinking about moving back to North America after 5 years in France--which I love and consider my adopted country--because while I'm certainly not someone who needs to be prom queen all the time, neither do I think I can handle going through life being shunned as the weird foreign-exchange student.

So there it is. Any advice folks might care to give on "regular " or intercultural office politics is much appreciated; thank you in advance!

(PS: There *are* two people, including moon-landing dude, who do clearly go out of their way to exclude me, so I realize it's possible everyone just dislikes me and that's that. But it would be the first time in my life that this problem has come up...)
posted by peakes to Work & Money (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Do you like these people? I mean if it wasn't for work would you want to spend any time with them socially? Just reading this made me cringe - I can be introverted and spending my days with gossipy karaoking pranksters would be a nightmare. I don't feel like this is a cultural issue if you have worked at other places without the same problem. It seems like a clash of personalities.

In one of my current jobs it took me a long time to settle because although I can be quiet I can also do small talk and office politics perfectly well and generally make work friends easily, but in this place the people just weren't my people. I had no interest in their conversations and hobbies and generally felt quite excluded. After a while it was ok because we all just got used to each other and while I won't ever be socialising with them I'm fine coming into work and just getting along.

I suspect you may just have to make your peace with the fact that they are never going to be more than the people you spend your working days with, and make sure you have enough friends and interests outside of the workplace to compensate. Sometimes group dynamics just mean, as you say, you don't "mesh" and that's just part of life. If I was you I'd look for another job before I'd give up on my dream and go back to the States. Bon chance!
posted by billiebee at 2:29 AM on April 13, 2016 [10 favorites]

Do you have French friends outside of work? Ones who have made it clear that they like you by inviting you to their homes? Has anyone in the office done this and have you reciprocated with the ones you find simpatico? I say focus on them and ignore the anglophobe.
posted by brujita at 2:43 AM on April 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

There is a memoir by an Australian writer called 'Almost French'. She writes at length about the subtle cultural differences between French and Australian friendships. What you describe is very similar to what she did- enough that you jogged my memory of a book I read two years ago! There was a lot of stuff about socialising, cliques and particularly female friendships that was rally interesting. You might find it reassuring/interesting to read, perhaps. From my own experience of living overseas (not in France but in Istanbul which quite a few French people and in London) there are layers of cultural differences that can emerge very gradually. In fact, 7 years into my marriage to an Englishman I still sometimes notice different cultural approaches to a range of activities and behaviours.

I wouldn't be so sure that it's not still a culture thing and that you're just seeing a new layer of that after 6 years.
posted by jojobobo at 2:58 AM on April 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

Ye gads - I'm an expat and an introvert and your workplace (any where, in any culture) is my worst nightmare. I'm sure there are young social boozy workplaces in Japan/US/Australia and I purposefully don't work for them because I wouldn't fit in. I say, find somewhere to work that's a bit quieter, nerdier, and maybe more diverse in age and see. I lived in Japan for over a year and never once got stuck going to karaoke and still made friends. It can be done! (Likewise, I've lived in Australia for four years and have yet to touch a Toohey's... *shudder*)
posted by jrobin276 at 3:20 AM on April 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

no single answer, just random comments. it's likely a mix of introvert, foreigner and that particular company, not a simple one single thing. 5 years isn't that much - i certainly integrated further after that time. companies vary (more so than cultures, i sometimes feel) - before you go home, consider changing company (it's also easier to be a "different person" starting out at a new place than changing at an old place). i found it much easier to work remotely for a company in a culture closer to my own.
posted by andrewcooke at 3:34 AM on April 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm an introvert: unless I'm with my closest friends, sometimes I just prefer to chat for a couple hours, have a beer and go home.

I've not done the ex-pat thing, but it sounds like you're WAY more mature than your colleagues. There may be a cultural thing where when you're in your first real job you act like you're in a Frat, but at the end of the day, this is not a thing you're interested in. I admit, I know nothing of French politics, but I've seen this in the US, so I'll talk to that experience.

I have sometimes worked in a group where I've been older than my colleagues, it sucks a bit because while they're all out having adventures at 3 AM, I'm home asleep. You can feel a bit weird and isolated, but then I think about what it is that they're doing, and how miserable I'd be if I were doing it too...and I feel better.

These things cycle. Right now they're all out doing shit that you hate, soon they'll couple up, marry and start families, and the dynamic will change in a hot hurry. You'll feel left out of that too, but at least then you'll know why.

It's your age. You're fresh out of college, you're with a group of folks who are in a similar cohort and they're still doing student shit. You grew up, they didn't.

Keep going to lunch as a group, be friendly, go for your cocktail and chit-chat after work, and then when you're tired of it, go home.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:14 AM on April 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

It's not you, it's not France, it's the culture at your office. And even if you had missed some cultural cue, who cares? Do you really want to compromise your own ethics so as to fit in? Do you really want to overlook who you are and force yourself to sing karaoke?

Find ways to be less focused on this question, and certainly, try not to internalize the social dynamics of your office culture.
- Focus on the friends you have outside of work or, alternatively, on making friends outside of work.
- Remember that your colleagues are not a hive-mind. Find the ones you like and chat with them. Ignore the others.
- Accept yourself: you're an introvert. These people are not your scene. There's nothing wrong with that.

As a last question: do you like your work? I've been in work environments where the social side did not mesh with me. Like yours, there was a lot of gossip and, to top it all off, a lot of backstabbing. I focused on the work and ignored most of the social politics (FTR, this was in North America). It was destabilizing to be an outsider at the office, but now, with hindsight, I realize it had very little to do with me.
posted by Milau at 4:53 AM on April 13, 2016 [6 favorites]

Hello fellow North American working in France. I've been doing this for 10 years now – I was a freelancer in France 10 years before being hired by my then-favorite-client, the French company I'm still with.

One notable exception is an individual who has consistently gone out of his way to let me know he resents my presence and feels that as an anglophone I do not belong in the department, apparently for reasons vaguely related to the evils of capitalism and the moon landing. But I digress.

This person is giving you the gift of doing/saying outright what many of the others are thinking/feeling but politely keeping to themselves. We're a freaking boon to the current iteration of racism in France: North America is the one place French people go where they're not treated like the royalty they think there are (a similar thing happens with Americans who visit France, so this is not specific to France). Furthermore, we are white, and so they can hate on our perceived superiority – a projection of their own – as much as they want, and all the while getting to show non-white foreigners, "look, we treat white outsiders like shit too, so don't get your hopes up." The particular issue for us is, we are also – much more understandably – seen as outsiders by non-white foreigners, so there is no real community we can find. I am still struggling with this after 20 years. All of my friends in France are Maghrebi and Indian. The only Franco-French friend I have is my ex-MIL, and she is just as infuriated by the ostracism as we are. It's terrible because it is true that we, as white people, can at least pass for "anonymous" (white) in public in France until someone outs our non-Frenchness. But the ostracism is still very profound.

I'm beginning to think that this behavior is making me into the office pariah

It's not you, and it is not your behavior. It is being a foreigner in a country that is going through one of the worst spates of racism it's had in recent memory (we'll not go back to P├ętainist France, although it is quite informative as to current racism). So, uh, yes, you will be a pariah. Honestly, it's better to accept that reality than to hurt yourself wondering what might be wrong with you. Like you, I NEVER had issues making friends, building trust, being valued as an individual... until I started working in a French company in France. Also, I've worked in Nice and in Paris now, so I can no longer think it's a southeastern France thing.

This exclusion also feels like a professional failure: if part of my job is being "sociable" with my colleagues, my apparent ineptitude at it could hurt me down the line.

I'll be straightforward so as to spare you the years it took me and my other non-white and/or non-"French" friends (many of whom have French citizenship, myself included) to fully grasp: yes, it will impact your career advancement. There is A Thing in French companies where talented outsiders are promoted purposefully in order to fail spectacularly. The failure is never their actual work, but their "social skills". This is what I am experiencing right now. Thankfully I saw it coming, and so have some network cushioning (all non-French, natch), but it still stings like hell. Every single one of my talented colleagues has been through this: hard work, extra hours, client recognition, lauded by colleagues, promoted to management, and about a year later, boom, they're very publicly painted as incompetent. End result being management, who are without fail all white male Franco-French (though you will get the very occasional Franco-French white woman), saying, "see, we can't take risks on outsiders, they suck!"

Could I improve things by going out of my way to be more "social"?

No. Please don't. They will eat you alive. Ask me how I know.

Do feel free to drop me a MeMail, if you're in the Paris area I'd be happy to meet up.
posted by fraula at 4:53 AM on April 13, 2016 [31 favorites]

On a more optimistic note: yes, looking for a more diverse company can help. Seek your people. Don't get down on yourself if none of the people currently surrounding you are. That just means you haven't found them yet.
posted by fraula at 5:00 AM on April 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

Maybe I'm being naive here, but - it sounds like you don't want to be friends with these guys. (And I don't blame you!) With the exception of the Anglophobe, they are polite and professional with you; they just aren't including you in their social circle for cat picture exchanges, prank runs, etc. Which makes sense, aren't friends. That doesn't make you a pariah, but it also doesn't make them seem unforgivably cliquish. They're just distinguishing between the things they do with their co-workers (chat politely, ask about weekends, have a quick beer after work) with the things they do with their friends (get wasted at karaoke, send cat pictures to each other, bitch about their bosses.)

The fact that you fall on one side of this line rather than the other seems to be as much your choice as theirs, and it doesn't quite seem fair to feel resentful and angry about the fact that people you don't like, who do things for fun you don't enjoy, aren't including you in their social activities- especially since you don't actually want to participate in these activities; you're mostly just concerned that being excluded will hinder your career advancement. It seems strange to imagine a scenario in which these people include you on their silly cat picture emails just for the sake of office harmony.

If I were you, I'd do two things. One, instead of focusing on all the ways they're excluding you, take ownership of your half of the relationship. You are choosing a politer, more formal working relationship with your officemates, and while yes, it's totally possible that there will be negative consequences to not being in the thick of the social whirl, there may also be positive consequences to setting yourself a bit apart - you're not shit talking your supervisor; you're not sleeping with someone you might someday need to supervise; you'll be a neutral party if the group ever implodes.

Second, instead of viewing your coworkers as an indistinguishable drunken mass, see if you can identify one or two people who you might genuinely click with one on one. In my experience, "everyone" is rarely going out and getting wasted every night - what the cool kids are doing has an outsized presence in your head, but aren't there a few people (maybe older, maybe also foreign) whose social lives are more your speed? Maybe people whom you would consider warming up to beyond the casual beer after work? Having just one friend who you genuinely like would probably go a long way towards taking the edge off that yucky feeling of being left out.

I really feel for you! Living overseas is hard, and so is navigating office politics. Good luck!
posted by pretentious illiterate at 5:51 AM on April 13, 2016 [7 favorites]

I'm in the tram right now and can't respond in detail yet, but I just checked back wanted to say WOW, all of these responses are so insightful and so helpful, thank you all!
posted by peakes at 9:00 AM on April 13, 2016

I've been you in workplaces right here in the US - so I'm going to say don't feel like you have to move back. I think this might just be that not everyone can make friends in any given group. That's what I tell myself anyway. I know it hurts to feel left out but you don't have to be friends with them. If they start excluding you from actual work stuff, you will need a new job.
posted by bleep at 9:10 AM on April 13, 2016

I've also been you in a US workplace, and after a few frustrating months of feeling left out (seriously, why all the drunken karaoke?), I left. I'd been telling myself that you don't come to work to make friends - which is true - but there was no one in the entire office with whom I felt like I had anything in common. I found a much better fit elsewhere, and when I interviewed and was talking about my strengths (analytical, over-preparing), the VP and I ended up in a conversation about how introverts can thrive in the right type of workplace - and I knew I'd found a home.

I'd put feelers out elsewhere and see what you might turn up. You're in no rush, but it sounds like a bad fit in the long term.
posted by writermcwriterson at 9:29 AM on April 13, 2016

Is there someone in the office that you feel closer to than the rest? Or someone who shares more with you than others do? Can you find a way to ask them why you're being excluded? It feels like you want to know whether this organization is just a bad fit culture-wise, or whether it's just down to your nationality.

Having said that, sometimes you need to do the team bonding thing whether you want to or not. My first PM job was 11 blokes and me. They'd go and watch the football at a bar 2-3 nights a week. I'd join them 1 night a week. I have no interest in football. Turned out that several other colleagues were also doing the same "trying to fit in" thing, so we'd sit at the back and chat about non-football stuff and ignore the football, and then rejoin the group after the game finished. Did that put me in the "in crowd"? No. But they continued to invite me to drinks, and so I was accepted enough to not have any problems at work. Maybe the occasional karaoke night might not be a bad thing?
posted by finding.perdita at 2:48 AM on April 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

France is notorious for requiring of foreigners to assimilate, meaning that they are expected to blend in to the point of totally erasing their own culture or identity.

As an African, I was never going to be the perfect Frenchman so I ran away like my life depended on it.
posted by Kwadeng at 3:21 PM on August 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

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