Editor’s Note: We are especially pleased to welcome a new Guest Author, Heather Markel, who has shared with us her ten tips for a successful expatriate cultural transition.
The complexities of moving to a new culture are immense. Typically, expatriate training programs include a cross-cultural component. However, I believe there are some areas which may be overlooked as the expatriate and possible family members prepare to move overseas.
With that in mind, I’d like to offer ten areas to focus on when transitioning to a new culture. This list is by no means exhaustive. Rather, it’s intended to help with the design of transition assistance programs. The first five areas are listed below, and the remaining five will be out in my next post, so keep a lookout for it!
1. Language – Conversation Topics
It goes without saying that when moving to a different country, it’s necessary for both the expatriate, and their family, to learn the local language. Routine activities would otherwise become overwhelming. (Note: Even when moving to another country that speaks the same language as at home, it can still feel like learning a new language.)
Beyond the basic language skills, though, there should be training on conversation topics that might be considered taboo, or that are a normal part of the culture. Not knowing these topics could lead to the expatriate and their family feeling left out. For example, history may be a topic to tread lightly on in Australia, whereas a fascinating topic for someone in Europe. Other topics to examine are politics, art, and food, as some examples.
2. Food – What You’ll Find and What You’ll Eat
It’s essential to understand two aspects of food – what you will find, and what you will not. Most of us have our “comfort foods”. Thinking of several different cultures, comfort foods could be dishes such as Thanksgiving turkey, fish-and-chips, spaghetti Bolognese, tacos, Vegemite, or kimchi. If you’re moving someplace where your favorite foods aren’t available, outside of an expensive import, the inability to find them during a challenging period could be disappointing for an expatriate. Especially if they are spending a traditional holiday away from friends and family, being able to find typical holiday foods can make the difference between a bout of depression and creating a new tradition.
Conversely, there will be new foods to try. In many countries you’ll find that intestines, brains, and kidneys are staple foods. It’s also possible that an expatriate will be invited to someone’s home and suddenly be in the delicate position of eating strange foods to avoid insulting their host. Therefore, it’s critical to prepare for expatriates to both sample new foods, and to help them figure out where they can find comfort foods, if available.
3. Meeting New Friends, and Coping With Missing the Old Ones
One of the toughest parts of any expatriate assignment is making new friends, and starting a new social network. While doing so, it’s easy to become disappointed at how different everyone is, and to miss the closeness of former friends. This can lead to what I call “the social media trap”, where every free moment is spent using Facebook, Skype, etc. to stay in close contact with everyone back home. However, this strategy will make it impossible for the expatriate to succeed at making new local friends.
If expats aren’t prepared for this difficult task, they can easily isolate themselves, and then become lonely and disillusioned with their overseas experience.
4. Getting Familiar with a New City
There are several components that go into familiarity with a new city.
- Location – Where is the town center? Where is the office in relation to home?
- Transportation – Is there a subway and bus system, are their taxis? If not, what alternatives exist?
- Safety – What areas of the city might be dangerous at night, or even during the daytime?
- Essentials – Being able to locate the nearest supermarket, laundry, and shoe-repair shops. Also, medical doctor and dentist referrals can be very helpful as someone gets to know a new city.
5. Formality at the Office
One of the most difficult subtleties between languages and cultures is the nature of addressing peers and managers. Depending where in the world an expatriate will be working, challenges could range from knowing when to use first versus last names, to understanding when to use formal versus informal verb conjugation. In some countries this could be about handshakes versus bowing or other customs. These challenges are often further complicated when addressing a female superior, where the challenge becomes figuring out whether to use the equivalent of “Ms” or “Mrs”.
It’s essential that these subtle behaviors and forms of address be understood for an expat to be accepted at the workplace. If they do not, they may become embarrassed in front of fellow employees and potential clients.
This list is just a start. In my next post, I will share five more tips with you. In the meantime, let me know what you think by leaving a comment!
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