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Expats Moving Overseas – Ten Tips to Transition to a New Culture

This article was originally published on the International HR Forum: http://internationalhr.wordpress.com and is reprinted with their permission.

By Heather Markel – Culture Transition Coaching
‘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.

#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.

#6 – Starting All Over
One of the toughest transitions for an expat is adjusting to a new office environment from “square one”. The expat may have held a senior level job in their previous location, and the new job can feel like a demotion. For the accompanying spouse, starting all over can be literal – if they’ve left behind a job or fruitful career, they may have to start a new career, or, in some cases, due to legal restrictions, not be allowed to work at all.

In both cases, it’s imperative that some attention be given to setting expectations. For the expat, this is about an initial period where they observe the office environment, rather than try to exert their own style or behavior on everyone else.

For the spouse, expectations should be set around what types of work are permitted. There should also be some support to help spouses with the job or career-search, or on finding something to replace the job they previously held.

#7 – Access to Activities
Transitioning to a new culture isn’t just about the office. Whether single, or with a family, expats need to find fulfilling activities to help them adjust to a new culture.

If the expat has moved with their family, then group activities will be important to the success of their overall experience.
Of course, available transportation may impact which activities are accessible, so providing assistance with ideas, or resources, is ideal.

#8 – Changes in the Family
For expats who have traveled with a spouse, it is more than likely the spouse has given up a job or career to follow along. If the non-working spouse isn’t happy, it can have a very negative impact on the overall experience. If the non-working spouse used to be a provider, and is now tasked with looking after the home, or the children, the role change will inevitably impact the family as well. It’s important to have an awareness of the changes, set expectations, and have a set of tools with which to navigate the resentments and challenges that are likely to develop.

#9 – Clothes: What Not to Wear
In many cases, this may be more impactful on women, than on men, but it’s important that a migrating employee understand if there are any cultural dress patterns. First, it’s less likely they will feel like they “stick out like a sore thumb” if they adapt to some of the typical dress codes. Second, there may be instances where the lack of this knowledge could land them in trouble – for example, in cities where women are expected to cover themselves from head-to-toe.

On a more subtle level, Americans tend toward either matching suits, or more casual garments in the office. When going out in the evening, it may be inappropriate to wear jeans. In France, women in the workplace sometimes wear what I’ll call “mismatched suits” – they look impeccably-dressed, even though their skirt does not have a matching jacket. Oddly, it’s not quite business casual; it’s simply a style difference. Going out in the evening, jeans are often acceptable if paired with a nice top.

Another thing I often find humorous is that in France, people always stare at shoes. So, while you might get away with wearing an old, worn-out pair of shoes or sneakers in some countries, you’ll become quickly insecure if you try the same in Paris.
Again, these are very subtle examples, but these small gaps can make all the difference when someone is trying to feel like they fit in to a new culture.

#10 – Eye Contact and Tone of Voice
Two behavioral areas between cultures that deserve attention are eye contact, and tone of voice. One huge area where eye contact comes into play is on public transportation. For example, in Paris, it seems mandatory to stare at fellow passengers and it can be very uncomfortable the first few times you look up to find someone staring at you, meet their gaze, and find they do not look away. In Tokyo, it’s exactly the opposite experience. Passengers typically avoid all eye contact by pretending to sleep – it’s another jarring experience to see an entire car full of people with their eyes closed.

Finally, the tone of voice with which you speak can often reveal that you are a foreigner. As an American, I know we tend to speak fairly loudly in social situations, especially when dining or drinking. However, other countries lean towards quieter conversations. So keep this in mind and adapt your conversations accordingly.

In Summary
I hope you find these tips, and the ones from my previous article, to be helpful in understanding the challenges that expatriates and their families often face upon arrival in a new country.

Contact Heather Markel – Culture Transition Coaching

The Cultural Transition website is here
Visit the Culture Transition Blog here
The How To Feel At Home Away From Home website is here
Or find information at Twitter:@expatconnector