The cultural difficulty of using LinkedIn
Many international students and professionals I’ve worked with find LinkedIn a little uncomfortable. There’s a look that comes into their eyes when I’m talking about the strategies. The resistance is palpable. Even after hearing about its many benefits and seeing evidence of its impact, many international people (though not all) feel an undeniable reluctance to use LinkedIn as it’s designed. While other social media platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter present no serious obstacles, for a lot of international people, using LinkedIn is a tricky business.
This is because, without meaning to, LinkedIn poses some significant cultural challenges.
In this article, I’d like to explain why I believe this to be the case but also why, perhaps unfortunately, LinkedIn is necessary to international people achieving their professional goals in the US.
Cultural Obstacle #1: Talking to Strangers
LinkedIn assumes its users will feel comfortable reaching out to strangers to “connect.” This kind of ‘cold’ networking behavior comes naturally to many Americans. We love meeting new people and interacting in a spontaneous manner with individuals we’ve never met and who are outside our social circle. We strike up a conversation at a bar. We chat in a friendly manner to the unknown guy on the bus. So it feels perfectly natural and normal to do this on a social media platform. “A stranger is just a friend I haven’t met yet,” as Will Rogers famously said.
But to people from other cultures, this behavior doesn’t feel natural or normal at all. It feels strange and can even be considered rude or inappropriate.
I know from my time in Asia and from many conversations I’ve had with people from Asia that they’re astonished at how easily Americans chat and make friends with total strangers. Striking up a conversation at a bus stop with someone you don’t know is a normal occurrence in the US. But if you’re from Asia, it’s unusual to say the least. It’s not something you’d do in your daily life, and the expectation that you would do it for professional advantage can be unsettling. It presents a real cultural challenge. (To be fair, I’ve heard that in India talking to random strangers is more common. And in fact, I’ve had many people from India reach out to me on LinkedIn.)
Cultural Obstacle #2 Directly Addressing Superiors
Next, LinkedIn assumes (and in fact requires) that you reach out and connect with people who are higher up in the industry food chain or in a particular company than you are. Whether its managers, supervisors, recruiters, team leads, or even a junior employee, these people are above you in the social and corporate hierarchy. But contacting them directly and developing a networking relationship with them are crucial to your success.
Again, this is fine in a country like the US (or in Canada) where the sense of hierarchy is less well established and less rigid. In the US, we might personally feel intimidated by senior-level people, but there’s no strict cultural rule against directly contacting or interacting with them. We chat casually with senior-level people all the time in the workplace. We criticize their ideas in meetings and question their assumptions. We treat them more or less like equals. But this is not the case in other cultures. Especially when these senior level people are outside our immediate circle of acquaintances.
Basically, the expectation that you will reach out and grow your professional network through LinkedIn is difficult. It’s asking people from some cultures to violate their cultural taboos and go against what feels natural and appropriate (of course, how seriously the taboo is taken depends on the individual). In other words, LinkedIn is rooted in cultural norms that are not universal and that can be hard to work around.
LinkedIn in the US has a cultural bias.
However, at the current time, LinkedIn is what it is – an outgrowth and expression of American cultural behaviors. And unfortunately, to be successful in the US, international people need to adopt some of these behaviors in order to be successful. And let’s face it, the things you need to do on LinkedIn are often necessary in the workplace itself!
Including LinkedIn in your set of tactical approaches to finding a job and growing your career can be hugely beneficial in the short and long term. This might be one of those “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” propositions.
Let me explain why LinkedIn is so critical to success in the US:
Why LinkedIn is necessary (in spite of the difficulties)
- Recruiters love it: articles I’ve read show that 70% of hiring managers and up to 87% of recruiters view LinkedIn as an effective way to vet and discover candidates. Simply put, if your LinkedIn profile isn’t up to date or optimized, you’re hurting your chances of getting a job.
- Free marketing for you: Your LinkedIn profile is free marketing for your job search. You can add experience, success metrics, keywords for recruiters, an attractive About section, projects, portfolios, and demo reels, and a banner image that helps convey your personality or “brand.” Furthermore you can post on topics relevant to your industry and display your expertise.
- Networking opportunities: nearly infinite numbers of professionals in your industry and your target companies are on LinkedIn. As difficult as it can be, it’s ok to reach out and connect with people for conversations, informational interviews, and coffee chats. You should not immediately ask for a job or a referral of course, but LinkedIn offers you unbelievable access to company insiders, alumni, decision makers, and potential lifetime connections!
- Job search functionality: LinkedIn provides a wide array of functionality and filters that allow you to search for jobs as well as connect with people inside your target companies who can assist you with information related to your job search and career growth.
You can started with LinkedIn by just optimizing your profile (follow these guidelines if you’re unsure how): https://www.linkedin.com/business/sales/blog/profile-best-practices/17-steps-to-a-better-linkedin-profile-in-2017
I encourage everyone to use LinkedIn, but I have no illusions about the difficulties it poses to people from other cultural backgrounds. In Asia, LinkedIn is used slightly differently.An article I saw online recently explains it this way:
[In Asia] Professionals avoid “cold-calling” and leverage social connections to initiate “warm introductions”,… build relationships with prospects and customers to grow their businesses.
Existing social connections are utilized to expand one’s network and done in a way that’s in keeping with Asian cultural norms. But again in the US, the expectations are very different and present challenges that may well be hindering career development for many of these talented international people.
I hope this is something the platform develops some awareness of.