Our culture informs our world view. It informs what we know, how others see perceive us…often even before we speak. In a way, identifying how our culture and diversity make us unique has been at the core of my teaching philosophy, in my decade(plus) working with clients and students from around the world. Helping people find and use the “expert within” to create an authentic personal brand has become my expertise.
Culture influences our values
My first business, focused on helping thousands of actors from New York City to Los Angeles, and far beyond, understand business and the value of personal branding. Since then I’ve adopted a global perspective on personal branding. It has evolved as a result of experience by viewing culture through the lens of my extensive background in the arts as well as decades of as a professional performer honored with both SAG-AFTRA and Actors Equity union memberships.
“What lies behind you and what lies in front of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Achieving the elusive goal of being a working, well-paid, actor takes a great deal of work, most importantly the work done from the inside out. I am grateful to have braved that internal journey and now teach what I learned myself – how to cultivate and integrate self-worth with our perception how others perceive us. It is essential to delve inwards to keep one’s balance while integrating an understanding of how performers are valued by our culture in America. While our country has a great appreciation for the arts, unless you’ve “made it,” people often don’t always take you seriously… which is why finding one’s self worth from the inside out is so essential.
It’s also why as working actor in New York City, with a BA in Communications and Public Relations, I quickly understood the necessity for developing a personal brand; identifying who you are, what you do, how you do it, how to package it, market it and find potential buyers in order to make a living… and a life.
“Standing out” vs “fitting in”
When we compare our insides to others photoshopped, curated outsides it is inevitably our self-worth that takes the hit. Our culture puts countless obstacles in the path to self understanding and self appreciation, most painfully FOMO, an expensive addiction to keeping up with the Jones, buying into advertising and media impossibilities and most troubling…fabricated social media posts. Only when we know who we are can we stop measuring our worth by others’ standards and find gratitude for what we have and who we are, not in comparison to others, rather in community with those we treasure.
At our essence our cultural values, and the preferences they can engender, are often our most difficult challenges to overcome. At times the individual’s cultural norms are both what stands in the way of their success and creates a springboard from which to achieve it.
Reframing Perceptions: It’s all how you see it.
One of the most powerful tools I’ve used with people is simply reframing their perceptions ever so slightly, often with astonishing results. This can bring a new way of seeing themselves by providing context for how they are often perceived and why. One of my favorite teaching experiences was with a lovely Icelandic actress named Nadia. From my perspective, she exemplified positive perceptions of Nordic women yet in an initial exercise I saw the folly of my assumptions.
As part of a standard perception exercise, I have each student stand in front of the class and write out their first impressions to share later. This serves as an opportunity to share first impressions and later start the basis for a dialogue as to why they might be perceived that way. I usually share mine in front of the class to demonstrate what I’m looking for. On this particular day, Nadia stood up in front of class and I offered the word tall, a seemingly safe observation. Nadia took that in for a moment then tears started to roll down her cheek. (As an aside, it’s not unusual for people to become emotional while hearing other’s perceptions.)
I inquired about the tears and what she was feeling. She shared that “tall” was what she aspired to be. She told us that for her entire life she wanted to be tall, but was the shortest one of her family and most of her friends in Iceland. At 5’10”, she may have felt culturally short. In America, she was quite tall. Lesson learned.
“When you really make things that really challenge the status quo or challenge issues, and you do it artistically, and you do it with no fear, people are listening.”
Acting from personal integrity might challenge cultural norms!
I’m proud to have Finnish blood swimming through my veins and honored to have spent a great deal of time speaking and teaching in the country of ancestors. On my first trip to Helsinki, I immediately noticed how quiet the buses and trains were there compared to New York City. So quiet, in fact, that the first perception of a Finn might be that they’re quiet and standoffish. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, it’s just an integral part of their culture. Once you understand the cultural norms and have a chance to get to know the people individually, most visitors find Finns are very warm, kind and wonderful hosts.
While teaching a group of Finnish students about personal branding and culture, I challenged them to do something Americans do all the time – to simply have a conversation with the person sitting next to them on their next bus or train ride. Imagine the look on their faces… I asked them to speak to total strangers! Most of them flatly refused to entertain the idea. They gave me all the reasons why they could not and should not do so.
Having anticipated the vehement reaction, I asked them to do an exercise where they chose a partner and then each partner had two minutes to talk about themselves. Once each partner had spoken I asked them to share what was most memorable about their partner’s story or common threads woven throughout. Breaking through their cultural norm, this exercise sparked some fun conversations amongst the students, though many of them had never spoken much to each other they suddenly felt the warmth of knowing each other better. When I asked them again to gauge their willingness to talk to strangers most had let go of their cultural taboo and were intrigued to give this simple, yet profound way of interacting a try!
In the spirit of emphasizing the value of networking I shared with them that they’d never know who might be sitting next to them, a casting director, a writer, a new love or a friend of a friend, and that by breaking cultural norms we often meet someone who helps in our journeys and us in theirs. As the world expands and shrinks at the same time, it is ever more evident that we are communal beings. It is through inclusivity in diversity that we co-create community.
What I learned and how you can apply it
Teaching students from so many different cultural backgrounds has taught me that understanding the power of cultural norms, how they help and hinder us, is key to creating a personal brand that resonates with the world. It has also shown me how, when challenged with intention and wisdom, these norms can be shifted, morphed, reframed.
As entrepreneurs, it’s important to remember that you are the leader and responsible for setting the cultural norms for the business you’re running. When we go inside (no surprise there) we find what works best on the outside, realizing that where and how we grew up can provide valuable information and a solid foundation for who we are today. What norms we might think are normal, might no longer serve us or others, and the time has come to possibly challenge them! Take an unflinching look and learn to recognize when norms are helpful and when they serve as obstacles.
In looking at the culture of your business, ask yourself:
- What cultural norms form the basis of your personal brand? Which serve you and your success? Which might be holding you back?
- What opportunities and possibilities might open for you if you challenged your cultural norms or redefined them for yourself? (ie. Is a solution to a problem in your business alluding you?)
- Are the cultural norms in your life and business creating a growth mindset or closed mindset? (ie. Are you or your partners and employees encouraged to take risk or is there only one correct way to perform.)