Standing Out: Is It Selfish?

Your unusual trait may be acceptable, even endearing, in some contexts, but in others it could place you at professional risk.

With the global job market remaining ultra-competitive, a question on many people’s minds is what influences the evaluations of job candidates. Everyone wants to be evaluated at least as favourably as their qualifications justify, but can seemingly innocuous unusual traits make those aiming to socially network and land jobs less professionally attractive?

New research shows that people who have even benign unusual characteristics should pay attention to cultural variance in responses to them. Having these unusual characteristics is usually not problematic in the United States. But in South Korea, Japan, and other East Asian countries, where people are more likely to believe that there are proper ways of being and acting to ensure social harmony and facilitate group functioning, they can have personal and professional implications.

Specifically, in East Asian countries people tend to expect individuals who have what we call “non-normative” characteristics to cause a disruption. They are seen as more selfish and are more likely to be avoided. This is even more likely if the characteristic is seen as controllable, such as being a vegetarian (versus having a food allergy, for which people are not blamed), and if the individual has not taken steps to assure others that they will minimise potential disruptions.

We also investigated whether East Asians are more likely than Westerners to devalue people who stood out by having excessively favourable qualities. While an initial survey found being curious, friendly, and extroverted were considered by both American and Korean participants to be good traits to have, when participants were asked to rate the characteristic at a higher “non-normative” level – that is being extremely curious, unusually friendly or a strong extrovert – Korean participants significantly devalued them compared to their American counterparts.

An interesting aspect of this research is that for people with unusual characteristics who demonstrate they will not require special accommodations, there are no social or professional consequences. Individuals with such traits may wish to take extra steps, in an East Asian context, to reassure the people they are working or socialising with that they will not be disruptive. Similarly Asians visiting or working in North America should be aware of the greater tolerance towards (even appreciation of) unusual characteristics and the cultural acceptability of relatively innocuous disruptions.

This is an edited version of the original article that first appeared on INSEAD Knowledge.

Zoe_kinias_ogilvydo Zoe Kinias is an Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD

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