You have arrived in the new country, you have settled into a place to live, or at least a reasonable hotel room, and you show up for work. You walk in the door and you may be the only foreigner in the place. That happened to me several times in my career. So, for starters, everybody is eyeing you, whether obviously or not. They are wondering how you're going to behave because in some cases they may not have run across foreigners before. Or worse, they may have run across foreigners before and it wasn’t a great experience. So, what do you do?
Yes, yes, you introduce yourself to your boss, because more than likely you will have one, and you ascertain things like where you're working in, the local facilities and things like that. But you now have to start to work with people. How will you go about integrating with the locals?
Now for me, during my career, I have found this to be a wonderful time. There are so many new things to discover and learn. There just aren’t enough hours in the day. So pacing yourself is important. Don’t imagine that you can drive yourself to be able to adapt in a week. Won’t happen, and you’ll go nuts. Pace yourself and enjoy the process. It may be a cliché but set yourself a steady pace and try to stick to it. Even now, I am rediscovering about pacing. Heard it on Headspace during a meditation session and realized I wasn’t doing that very effectively. Am trying to focus on it now and what a difference.
You should have already determined whether language is going to be a major issue or not. That should have come up in the interview and hiring process. If you speak the local language, that is fantastic. But, if you don't, and you are reasonably expectant that, based on the interview, that you will be able to speak English or some other language you are familiar with in the workplace, then don't let it bother you too much. You can always make an effort to learn the local language. And if you can, you definitely should. [For some motivation on this as well as methods check out TED talks about language learning]
But, and I cannot emphasize this enough, approach your new colleagues, and your new work, with patience, tolerance, and quietness. In many cultures, coming across as brash and arrogant, well, you are likely to just create a permanently bad first impression and fall on your face. So please, please, please take this bit of advice to heart. Quiet, calm, patient, tolerant, understanding. Do not expect everything to go exactly the way you expect. Do not expect things to be done, in fact, don't expect anything to be done, the way it was where you came from. You are the foreigner. It is your responsibility to be able to adapt to the local culture not the other way around. I am not saying in all things, but in most things this is the approach you have to take. You are in their country. If you expect that you can force everybody in the country to adhere to your standards or ways of doing things, you are in for a shock. Now it may be that you have been brought in specifically to inject a different way of doing things. I have had that happen to me as well. However, you're not going to make that work by trying to ram it down their throats on the first day.
You owe it to yourself and your colleagues to spend some time observing and absorbing your new environment. And don’t be hesitant about finding somebody you can ask questions of. This is not always the easiest thing to do though. In many cultures, it is hard to get people to open up and give you the straight forward answers you may be looking for. You should invest time to develop resources who you can go to though. They will prove invaluable.
If you, by the way, are insecure, and think that you are revealing weakness because you indicate that you don’t know things, or are worried about embarrassing yourself for asking questions, well, either get over it, or just pack your bags and go home.
Andrew Molinsky wrote a book on this and it is pretty good. Google his name and Global Dexterity. I would go so far as to say that if you want to work overseas (or even if you are already working overseas) this book is a must read.
Now I, personally, have a school of thought that says in business and science, culture is not an adequate excuse for doing things the wrong way. My belief is that in business and science, there is a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things. You wish to do things correctly, efficiently, and in such a way that the outcome, whether it is a scientific result, or customer service, is what it ought to be. You don't want to be pissing off clients and you don't want to generate erroneous results.
However, it can take time to put a point like that across. I have done it, but it does take time. If you can find local people who already have an appropriate mindset, they will be invaluable resources. Cultivate them, use them.
Now, I would imagine that you are aware that whenever you go to work in a new company, that company will have a unique internal culture. Even in your home country, there different cultures from one company to another. There can be variances based on the industry (think software developers versus automotive industry), not to mention differences between individuals. To give yourself credit, these are things that you are already aware of and have [hopefully] dealth with successfully in the past. So, now you need to add the NATIONAL cultural differences on top of that. Think of it as just one more layer.
And of course, I am aware, that when you are in this new workplace you will be trying to acclimate yourself to many other things at the same time. It might be the climate, the fact that maybe everybody drinks instant coffee instead of brewed, there may not be a nice casual place that serves the food that you are used to eating, etc. I have experienced every one of these things and more.
In Turkey when the hotel served olives, cheese, and cucumbers for breakfast. Eggs were an anemic afterthought. [My father was a Wyoming cowboy, and even living overseas he raised me to enjoy an American cowboy breakfast]. Tea as the only drink available (Hard to believe I know in the age of Starbucks, but 25 years ago it could happen). China where noodles or congee (Chinese rice gruel) are the breakfast of the day. Hong Kong where everybody likes to wear suits when it is 100 degrees and the humidity is 90%. Personally, I think food and how you approach it can make a huge difference to how you view your new environment. So don't be shy to try to new things. But on the other hand, if you don't like something, don't partake of it. Living in Turkey I grew to love Turkish coffee and Raki. Acquired taste, but I enjoy both to this day. And do study up on local eating habits. What's rude and what isn't.
So be kind and patient with yourself as well. Don't expect that you're going to adapt and adjust overnight. And beware "the curve". Try not to have your expectations and excitement over working in a new country be so high that when reality hits, you become crushed. As I said earlier, pace yourself. It can take months to adapt, so don’t get discouraged when it doesn’t happen in days or weeks.
After all, think about how wonderful it is that you are in fact actually in another country, you're being paid for it, and doing a job that, hopefully, you really love. That's a pretty great set of circumstances if you ask me.
Take the time to pick up books on cross-cultural communications and read them. Look up the resources on line, there are quite a few, far more than there were 20 years ago. Well, hell, 20 years ago, the Internet was just taking off. Study what you can, obviously concentrating on the new country that you are in. Not everything that you read in a book or online about your country will be correct. So please try to approach the local people and find out exactly what the local cultural habits are.
So when you have identified the friction points between your behavior and the local behavior, now comes the second tough part. How can you change in order to fit in better?
Look for a small incremental way in which you can address the most critical friction point for you. It could be something like trying to be a little more restrained in meetings, or maybe the opposite, a little more forward. It might be talking a little more about your family or personal life … or not doing that. Once you have done this once, and seen the result, other changes will be much easier for you. I don't reccomend trying to make a huge change about yourself right away. It probably won’t work out well for you anyway, and there is a good chance it will reflect badly on you.
When you make your change, try to connect your change in behavior to something that is important to you such as your personal goals for example. Why do this? Because psychologically, if you can make that connection, then it will help you to allow yourself to make a change that goes against your engrained behavior. I have done this numerous times for changes in my personal habits. It really helps.
Let me state that it does not behoove one to try to become a local either. In the first place, you're highly unlikely to succeed. In the second place if you go overboard trying to do it, you may well come off looking like a fool. Adapting in a foreign country is not about being a chameleon and turning into a local. You are a foreigner, there's nothing wrong with that. So instead approach it from the point of view that while you may adapt some local cultural habits as you think they pertain to you, but regardless, you respect their local culture. If you approach it like that I suspect that you will do all right.
I will say that there may well be some points of the local culture that you simply cannot abide. For me, for example, when I worked in Saudi, I just couldn’t ‘get’ the way they treated women. Now, I was lucky that I rarely had to deal with it up close and personal, but you will have to figure out how to deal with whatever your particular sore point is. If you have too many sensitivities … well … that may be a make or break point for you. But I can promise you that you won’t change an entire culture to suit you. You have to be able to figure out a way to deal with it. Being thin skinned is not an ex-pat survival trait. Flexibility, patience, tolerance, and calmness are the way to go.
For me, personally, I have lived in so many different cultures that I’m not sure what is ‘me’ and what is not. I guess it is all me now. I spoke about ‘cherry picking’ in an early blog post. Once you have adopted some of these new behavior patterns they may be with you for life. And that is not a bad thing.
So relax, pace yourself, and enjoy the ride.
This article is only a way to lay out some very broad strokes about the issues involved with working outside your home culture. After all, whole books have been written about this subject. But if anyone has specific questions please feel free to contact me directly.