“I felt like an elephant in the room.”

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 1.10.25 PMI met an old friend and colleague for coffee last week.  We first met 10 years ago when she came to work at the same company I did – an ad agency. Back then we’d just made the smart move of transferring her from Hong Kong to our Toronto office.

It wasn’t just any coffee meeting. We were celebrating the latest big success in her career – a senior level job with global responsibilities she’d just accepted, based in Singapore.  An exciting move for her and her Canadian-born husband and child, and a chance to be closer again to her family back in Hong Kong.

I told her about this blog and asked her to think back on her early days in Canada:

When I first showed up at work 10 years ago, I felt like an alien, or the saying ‘an elephant in the room’. It was a bit of a struggle to adapt, but nothing great is easy.

Here’s what she says she tried, that worked for her back then:

Small Talk

Canadians love small talk, anything from the weather to what they had for dinner last night.  I used to think it was a big waste of time.  Throughout the years, I have learned to love it and used it as an opportunity to learn about the people around me and let people learn about me.   It makes me more human (vs. an alien) and it helps create a better work environment.  Even if you don’t have anything to share, try asking questions.  It shows people that you are interested.


Make fun of yourself.  Every culture has its own unique characteristics and I celebrated mine by making fun of them.  Humour eases tension, and making fun of the little quirks of your own culture gives you a way-in to present yourself as who you are.  For example, I make fun of my Chinese accent all the time, so it is not an awkward situation when someone asks me to repeat myself or corrects my pronunciation.

Make fun of the Canadians too.  It is OK, they don’t mind.  Tell them how it is so annoying that they are so nice and so polite, and don’t speak their minds.

Celebrate your culture

I would bring Chinese snacks, or host a Chinese New Year party in the office.  It is a great icebreaker.  Canadians are shy. I found sometimes it is not that they don’t want to know you or talk to you; they just need a little help and an opportunity.

I absolutely remember my colleague doing all these things in her first year in Toronto, and eventually she became one of the best-liked (and respected) people in the office.

I also remember her taking an evening Second City improv course, to practice her skills with people.   I know Community Connections has offered similar opportunities and they can be great for anyone to work on listening skills, communication, empathy and teamwork.

Have you had success with any of these approaches, or do you have some of your own? We’d love your comments!

Kim Koster

Brand Strategist