International Students: How to Handle the Passion Question? (Part 1)

interEDGE-how should international students handle the passion question

International students often feel tongue-tied when the word “passion” is brought up during a conversation. In a career counseling session, or an informational interview, or an interview, you are asked: “what is your passion?” “ what do you love doing?” or “what are you most passionate about?” Quickly you are twisting your brain for the best thought-through answer. You make one up, mumble through it or otherwise are left with an awkward silence, smirking at you for not knowing you passion.

Don’t let it. Recognize the cultural difference embedded in this passion talk. In many countries in Asia, Africa, East Europe and Latin America, a career choice is a practical matter. Which profession makes more money? Which occupation has the best job prospect? Which industry offers the quickest ladder of advancement? Or in which industry will I be supported with the strongest relationships (“guanxi” in Chinese or “gujaad” in Hindi)? Passion is seldom counted as a factor for career decisions. 

Acknowledge the awkward moment of silence or mumbling is nothing uncommon in an intercultural context. It is caused by the fact you are living in a cultural crossroads. It is described as “culture shock”, referring to experiencing disoriented when we travel or live in a new culture. This may cause some feelings we earlier mentioned such as confused, judged and frustrated, which could lead us to feel defeated and incompetent. It is important to separate these feelings from what really happened, which is simply a case of cultural shock. It has little to do with your capability, dedication or career certainty.

Be aware of the culture differences and prepare to have a conversation about your passion. Although passion may be one of the last considerations for taking a profession in your country, it has long been one of the themes for career pursuit in the United States. Thousands and millions are advised to find what they love doing before settling down for just a job. Remember the Starbucks tagline “ Do What You Love”? Even though more and more research show little evidence as proof of this passion hypothesis, which I will write about in a different blog post, passion is still one of the most common conversation topics during career counseling and interviews.

Try using alternative words.  To make yourself at ease during the conversation, you may prefer to use another word rather than “passion” or “passionate”. A simple change of language can take the pressure off you to speak of something you feel uncertain about, rewire your brain to perceive it as something related but with subtle differences that matter greatly to you.  Try a few alternatives such as “I am most interested”, “I enjoy”, “I appreciate”, “I love”, or “I am good at.”

Now you know how to mentally prepare yourself for the passion question, learn more about how to engage this conversation effectively in different scenarios.

About Di Hu

Co-founder and principal coach at interEDGE.org, an initiative of DrEducation, to offer online training solutions to institutions to support academic and career success of international students. Follow her on @CoachDiHu

2 Responses

  1. Great article, I know how this feels and can remember the first time I came to the US, with a ton of hope and openness to learn about the culture. Some things are true culture shocks in the beginning and knowing and accepting these differences do make a huge difference! Great article InterEdge team!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] Passion is a word with rich cultural meaning embedded. As a conversation topic, it can bring confusion, frustration and even discomfort to international students. Previously I wrote about how international students overcome the mental stress during a conversation about passion. […]

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