Working abroad: 3 steps to feeling less like a foreigner at work

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Working abroad is a bit of a double-whammy. You’re not only adapting to a new country, you also have to adapt to a new work culture. As if moving abroad wasn’t demanding already, right?

I’ve had a number of jobs living and working abroad in 7 different countries in the last 14 years.

It never failed to amaze me how I was never able to rely on my past experiences when I started in a new company, especially when I coupled that with moving countries as well.

It took me years of professional experience to see that it’s not only that company cultures are different from one another. Those differences are exacerbated when we move companies and countries.

Work cultures can be different around the globe, even between countries that we’d expect to be quite similar to one another. Add to that the fact that companies themselves have different cultures which takes time to learn about and adapt to.

Trying to figure out all of those differences, especially those which are more unspoken and lurk between the lines, requires great detective work.

But being a detective of sorts is precisely what has helped me keep an open mind, adapt faster to a new workplace and feel less like a total foreigner.

Working abroad requires that we adapt to a new culture and a new work culture

How I realized that I suck at working abroad – something that I didn’t even know one can suck at

In the early days of my professional life, I worked in all kinds of hospitality branches. It was the perfect industry as it allowed me to travel the world and always be able to find a job.

Except I was completely oblivious to the fact that how I was used to doing things in one country was not going to fly very well in another country.

You’d think this is obvious, but not when you’re just starting out your expat lifestyle.

The first country that I moved to after leaving Estonia as a bright-eyed young woman was the German part of Switzerland. Although I was there to study, I sometimes worked in a pretty cool performing arts centre.

Somehow, though, I kept messing up my interactions with the customers. On top of that, I was completely unaware of the fact that I wasn’t translating over very well.

How to prepare for working abroad

It was not until a kind colleague of mine pulled me aside one day and told me that I had consistently almost insulted our customers.

He patiently went through the trouble of explaining to me how people interpret what I say to them in a negative way and suggested how I could phrase things differently.

I was horrified that I had unintentionally insulted our customers. It’s the cardinal sin of any hospitality professional.

But it also opened my eyes to the fact that the same action or behavior does not have the same meaning in different countries or workplaces. Something that I’ve experienced over and over again ever since.

When working abroad, we need to become extra aware of how we talk, behave and interpret, and how that may not overlap with how people around us understand what we do.

It’s the classic point made in intercultural training.

Except what I find frustrating about advice that goes something like ‘Chinese do like this’ and ‘German don’t like when you do this’, is that it doesn’t take into account how company cultures are can be very different from each other and the wider society.

Company cultures may bear traces of the broader cultural context, but it is most likely a hybrid of different factors – the management, the values of the company, how international the employees are (or not), the industry characteristics, and then the broader culture in which the company exists.

You can read cultural guides for different countries to get a general idea of what to expect, but the real work is hidden in discovering the ins and outs of your new workplace.

So here are 3 steps to take if you want to prepare for working abroad without feeling like a complete foreigner.

It takes detective work to figure out a workplace culture

STEP 1: When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Wait, but what do the Romans do again?

Get really good at observation.

Whenever you can, just observe for 10-20 minutes – without passing judgment, interpreting people’s actions or comparing it to how you’re used to doing things. Try to objectively describe what you see step by step in your head.

You’d be surprised at what you start to notice when you conciously take the time to observe. Little details in how people talk, react and behave – all things that may have escaped your attention before.

Do these observations on a regular basis and see if you start to see patterns.

For instance, in this situation, people do x. But in that situation they do y.

Once you start to notice details and patterns, you’ll find that you’re puzzled about why some things are done in a certain way.

That’s when you’ll know you’re ready to move on to step two.

Anxious about working abroad

STEP 2: Why has no one asked the Roman why he does what he does?

Find someone that you trust or feel comfortable and who’s a local.

S/He does not need to be your colleague, but to really understand your new workplace, it helps to have someone that already knows his or her way around the company.

Ask this person for the reasonings behind your observations of how people behave. It doesn’t need to be a full on interview. But do share one or two of your observations over lunch or during a break when you can talk one-on-one.

Hopefully this person doesn’t run on autopilot and is able to explain why people behave in certain ways. You may learn that this thing that you’ve observed is something characteristic to the country as a whole, or something quite specific to this company.

If you’re not happy with the explanation or it doesn’t seem to go beyond the surface, ask other locals to explain their understanding of your observations.

How to adapt to a new workplace culture

STEP 3: Do I actually want to do as the Romans do?

Once you’ve found your explanations, you’re in a much better position to know how to navigate your workplace and not ruffle any feathers unintentionally.

It may take quite some time before you feel that this new behavior comes naturally to you. But as time goes on, it may become such a normal part of you that you only notice it when you move to a new country and realize how you’re operating according to a new set of rules.

But stay open to the fact that how things are done in your new workplace may not actually jive with who you are or how you want to live or work.

However, by then you will then at least be wiser whether what you’ve discovered is a company culture thing – in which case you can change jobs, if that’s an option for you – or whether it is a broader cultural thing – in which case you may have a culture clash in your hands. I’ve written about how to go about dealing with a culture clashes here.

What unexpected surprises have you had working abroad? Let me know in the comments below.

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