In my last article, I discussed the financial considerations of working abroad. In this one, I will discuss cultural factors you may wish to weigh before accepting a position overseas.
The first is that we, as Americans, often forget how much the rest of the world dislikes us as a country and as a people. Although they may envy our freedoms and power as a country, they often do not understand anything about us and may even dislike us based on preconceived notions, bias, experiences, or other factors.
At the same time, they need us or would not be searching for talent outside of their own internal labor pool. That leads to a dichotomy of needs versus wants. They may need your expertise, but not really want you there. Often we have preconceived notions that because a foreign employer is willing to pay an above-average salary and recruit you from halfway around the world that they really want you in their country. Nothing could be farther from the truth. They, in-fact, just need you and many people in their country and even the organization you will be working in will resent your being there, as anything other than a tourist.
Note that you are a guest and need to conduct yourself in such a manner. Also, like many guests, it is easy to outstay your welcome. Like a guest, you need to adapt to their country, customs, and cultural nuances, as they will not be adapting to the American way of business and life. This means that one should study the customs and life of the country and region you will be living in so as to successfully adapt. For example, when I worked in the Bavarian region of Germany, the traditional greeting is “Gruess Gott” (greet GOD). When I first moved back, I forgot that and would often greet people with hello, good day, or other greetings. Such a minor mistake can quickly mark you as a Preiz (literally translated as a derogatory term for a Prussian or outsider). In Bermuda, the locals are very careful to say good morning and good afternoon and not good day or hello. That distinction is very important and taken very seriously. Also, they will often greet in such a manner no matter how many times a day they see you.
I cannot stress enough the need to fully understand the social and business culture of the country you are working in. For instance, in Mexico the family is at the center of the social structure. Mexicans consider it their duty and responsibility to help family members, especially with finding employment or financing a house or other large purchase. Another item of note is that if invited to a home for a business dinner, one can bring a small gift or flower but not give marigolds as they symbolize death. Also, do no not give red flowers as they have a negative connotation. White flowers on the other hand are a good gift as they are considered uplifting.
That was just one social consideration. There are hundreds of minor business considerations that can make or break your success. For instance, in Mexico again, business appointments are required and should be made at least two weeks in advance, and it is important that you arrive on time for meetings, although your Mexican business associates may be up to 30 minutes late.
In Russia, on the other hand, appointments are also necessary but need to be made as far in advance as possible; often six weeks or more to meet with a government official. Meetings in Russia are also often frustrating for Americans as they are frequently interrupted. It is common for several side conversations that have nothing to do with the topic of the meeting to be carried on during the meeting. These are not even the tip of the iceberg for Mexico and Russia. Imagine how many other nuances you will need to consider when working in any foreign country. This goes from greetings and how to shake hands or handle business cards to saying goodbye or getting action on items you need completed.
Communication styles are also exceedingly important and can limit your effectiveness or success if misunderstood. For example, Bermudian communication is often non-confrontational and seeped in passive aggression. It can make work very challenging as it is often difficult to gage where one stands. Work is also carried out on more of a relationship basis than it is in the US, with most deals being cut through people one knows rather than what one brings to the table.
In some countries, it is not uncommon to be asked for or expected to offer a bribe to get some business needs met. In Russia, never use high-pressure communication techniques, as they will surely have a negative effect. In many oriental countries, showing harmony in business discussions even when at odds with each other is critical. Harmony indicates a manner for them to save face and retain personal dignity which is a critical part of their social structure. Many Malaysians and Oriental cultures are very, very sensitive to retaining face in all aspects of their lives.
In many Oriental or Malaysian countries, people rely on facial expression, tone of voice and posture to tell them what someone feels. They often trust non-verbal messages more than the spoken word. Communication is often very subtle, indirect, and implied. They hint at a point rather than making a direct statement, since that might cause the other person to lose face.
In terms of dignity, other countries have just as unique challenges. For instance, in Saudi Arabia and many Middle Eastern Countries, you may need to repeat your main points since it will be interpreted as meaning you are telling the truth. When negotiating, Saudi’s usually start very low and haggling is expected. You may need to compromise on a point if someone’s dignity is at stake.
There is a tendency to avoid giving bad news and to give effusive acceptances, which may only mean ‘perhaps.’ One challenge I have experienced in dealing with staff or partners from India is that they will likely never tell you no, that they cannot do something. When pressed, they will likely say, “Oh, you really wanted that?” Then later, “Oh you really, really wanted that?”
I could go on about culture and communication in various countries. The key, though, is that to be successful you will need to adapt. You can read books on the area you are going but many nuances are never mentioned. I read everything I could find on Bermuda before taking a job there, and I was still ill prepared. While in the military they spent months preparing me to blend in with other cultures as a local. You will likely not have that level of training or even be able to find classes if you had the time to take them. I strongly recommend that before going you try to find people close to you from the area you are considering and talk with them in-depth about their lives back in their mother country and the challenges you can expect.
Also don’t forget that work is just one aspect of life. You need to consider communication and societal nuances in your private interactions too. This goes from your ability to find a rental and negotiating foreign government bureaucracy to dating if you are single. One of the things I found interesting in working in an ex-pat environment is that often ex-pat community’s spring up and many workers congregate or group with each other not just for support but for social interaction of their own kind rather than mingling with the host country populace. While this may seem like a good support mechanism, it is also at time frowned upon by the locals.
Also, you need to put away your American preconceived notions of equality and fair play. In many countries, racism is alive and well, and while you do not need to embrace them; you do need to understand and consider them.
When in two countries I will not mention the name of, I hosted a get together for my peers and staff. I invited people of both black and white race, as I don’t believe in racism and accept people based on their behavior and treatment of others. In both cases, only the white people showed up. When I asked about it later, I was told in private that, while my black staff and peers appreciated the invitations, they were uncomfortable socializing with whites in groups for a host of cultural reason. While they were comfortable socializing with whites one on one or in small groups, it was uncomfortable in larger gatherings.
On one occasion in Africa, my black workers would wait for us and their white leader to eat first before they ate. While this was very uncomfortable for me, it was more uncomfortable for them when I asked them to come over and join us so that we could all eat together. Again, there are social nuisances you have to understand and deal with that can make or break your business success, personal interactions, and affect your ability to get things done.
So to summarize, I will start with the fact that unless you grew up in that foreign country or were a native, you likely do not know what you don’t know. While reading, classes, or speaking with others will help prepare you; you will still never be fully prepared and likely make many mistakes along the way. You will need to adapt in ways you have likely never experienced or thought about before. Also don’t have any preconceived notions that the host populace, peers, or employers necessarily want you there.
Taking a job in a foreign country can truly be an adventure. It can be exceedingly rewarding and leave you with great memories. It can also be frustrating, challenging, and even dangerous. Think carefully about what you are getting into, consider if you have the toolset to succeed, and weight the other impacts to your quality of life, health, and career.