Adapting to a New Culture Takes Curiosity, Humility and Patience

You’re eagerly awaiting the start of your overseas assignment. You’ve learned enough of the language to be passably proficient. You’ve studied films, books and articles to understand cultural norms and nuances, and you’ve even interviewed a few native-born colleagues to find out where the cultural landmines might be hidden.

Things go smoothly, at first. Your host manager and colleagues are cordial, helpful and for the most part, patient. Your workspace is ready and waiting. (If only your desk weren’t one of dozens crammed into an open office space, with none of the acoustical or visual barriers you crave to focus on your work. You silently wonder whether wearing noise-cancelling headphones will send the wrong message.)

When your colleagues invite you to join them for a cigarette break, you politely decline. (You don’t smoke, and you don’t want to be known as the kind of person who takes excessive breaks.) Then it dawns on you that every time your colleagues come back from break, they’re engaged in an animated conversation that you wish you’d been part of. You realize that these breaks are where vital discussions take place and decisions are made. If only you had caught on earlier…

When planning for a successful overseas assignment, what can organizations do to help ensure a smooth transition? Joining me for this month’s Communique is Flannery Audebrand, a Global Mobility Specialist at PTC, an American who spent several years in France for business school and work, and her husband Emile Audebrand, a Mechanical Engineer at Brooks Automation, who moved to Massachusetts one year ago from his native France. In a recent interview, they discussed some of the rough spots they experienced when moving to a new country, and offered advice to organizations who want to make sure that international assignments reap the expected rewards.

  • Assign an “identity ambassador” or a “culture coach” who can mentor the incoming ex-pat, especially in the early weeks, and then periodically throughout the assignment. Ideally, this culture coach will be a recent ex-pat and is sufficiently “fluent” in the local culture so they can interpret the meaning of certain behaviors, attitudes and words. The first three months of Flannery’s internship in France was a little rocky at times, she admits. Then she was assigned a culture coach, a French national who had just returned to France after living in Germany. “When she took me under her wing and helped me “translate” what was going on, everything suddenly fell into place.” But don’t wait until the move to connect ex-pats with a culture coach. They need guidance in advance, so they can anticipate and prepare for differences, both in business and social settings. Flannery herself recently prepared a colleague from India who was relocating to Massachusetts. He assumed he could find rides to work to his suburban office location, as he was not comfortable with the idea of driving. Had Flannery not given him a realistic assessment of his transportation options ahead of time, he may well have been left with no easy way to get to work.
  • Lay the groundwork for helping ex-pats forge networks that can serve as a lifeline, both professionally and personally. Unlike in his native France, Emile was surprised at how few “casual conversations” seem to take place during the average workday in his new office in Massachusetts. This dynamic, coupled with the fact that many people never stop for breaks during the workday, made it difficult for Emile to build personal relationships with people at work. And outside of work, he was at a loss as to where he might go to build a personal network. “My transition would have been so much easier if I had been able to connect more easily with people at work, and certainly, outside of work. I didn’t know how to go about doing this on my own.” One step organizations can take: Organize mealtime meetings for your new team member and those who might serve as valuable connections, such as other ex-pats, people who live in the same town or who have kids who play the same sports or go to the same school, or those with similar professional interests.
  • Encourage and enable ex-pats to avail themselves of cultural training, as well as language training if needed. If your organization doesn’t offer such training in-house, point them to resources you or your colleagues have personally vetted. While it’s important to offer such training to employees (and family members) prior to the transition, it’s crucial for such training to continue afterwards. Says Flannery: “As ex-pats, we really can’t predict what questions we’ll have until we get there. It’s only after we’ve been in a new country a few weeks that we have real-life experiences that we need to unpack and interpret. We need a context for our cultural training so we can directly apply what we learn to our current situations.”
  • Break ideas and steps down into manageable pieces, especially when processes and systems are complex. Even though the ex-pat may have proficiency in the local language, it’s unlikely s/he has true mastery at the outset. So instead of describing a 10-step process for design reviews all at once, break the process into a few steps at a time, paraphrasing along the way to allow for reflection and understanding. Emile explains: “Even though I came to my new job as an experienced engineer, I could grasp concepts far more easily when they were explained a little bit at a time.” Since some people comprehend more easily by listening, and others by reading, make sure that important concepts, rules, steps, etc., are explained in different ways.
  • Be achingly clear in your communications. Use simple language, short sentences, and straightforward words. Make things explicit, and don’t assume that anything “goes without saying” unless proven otherwise. If you make references to local popular culture, explain their significance to your new colleague, so they don’t feel excluded. Likewise, when you use idioms like “rain on your parade,” “out in left field,” “piece of cake,” or “adding fuel to the fire,” pause to explain them. Ask what idioms are common from your colleague’s culture, and include some as part of your team’s shared vocabulary. On the other hand, just because someone hasn’t mastered the local language, don’t assume they lack expertise. Emile explains: “I think some people unconsciously assume that if my English is not impeccable, then I must not be an expert in my field. People need to see beyond the superficial language differences to understand the skills and strengths each of us bring.”
  • Call out cultural differences that matter most. Be proactive about pointing out some of the key differences when it comes to communication and teamwork. For example, Flannery and Emile contrasted the difference between American and French cultures when it comes to presenting ideas. “In the U.S,” Flannery explains, “when we present ideas, we pay a lot of attention to how we package and market those ideas.” Emile explains that in France, it’s the quality of the ideas, and the critical thinking skills reflected in those ideas, that matter most. The “wrapping” is less important. (It’s no surprise to learn that philosophy is a required topic for all French schoolchildren, whereas in the U.S., philosophy is usually offered only in college, and even then, it’s not required for most majors.)
  • Translate humor; don’t avoid it. Humor can be a great connector, and it can also be a great divider if it’s not understood or appreciated. Go out of your way to explain to your ex-pat colleague what it was, exactly, that made someone laugh. Maybe it was the clever use of a pun, a double-entendre, or perhaps it was pure sarcasm, which may be especially hard to interpret, especially when delivered with a deadpan expression. Emile explains: “When the facial expression does not match the ‘joke,’ it can be confusing and awkward. Should I smile? Laugh? Ignore it? I don’t want to laugh if it wasn’t meant to be funny, but I don’t want to miss the joke either.” Offer to watch films, TV shows or videos with your new colleague, and stop to explain the humor. Likewise, discover what kind of humor is typically used in your colleague’s native culture so that you can all share in the laughs.
  • Help set realistic expectations and expect glitches. Anyone who has ever tried to assimilate into a new culture has made missteps along the way. But it’s through those faux pas that we often get the best lessons. Flannery appreciated not knowing everything in advance. “It was really through those awkward, uncomfortable moments that I learned the most, in ways that really stuck with me.” For example, a colleague advised her that to be polite, she should keep Nespresso pods in her desk, and “invite” colleagues for a coffee break. When she finally got up the nerve to invite her boss for coffee, she pressed the buttons in the wrong order and broke the machine. On her last day of work, her boss presented her with a detailed Nespresso user guide as a memento. “Looking back, I wish I had been more gentle with myself, giving myself permission to make mistakes and to hang back to observe and learn, rather than expecting a perfectly smooth transition.”

If organizations and employees alike want to reap the real benefits of an international assignment, it’s enormously helpful to have someone in a leadership position who sees diversity as a business priority rather than a “nice-to-have.” Such a commitment may include the design of thoughtfully-planned assignments, making cross-cultural and language training easily accessible, and modeling the desired behavior by acting as a cultural coach for an ex-pat. But in the absence of such a visible commitment from on high, it’s incumbent on all of us to find ways, either large or small, to contribute to helping our ex-pat colleagues make a smooth transition.



Improving your Personal Effectiveness with International Audiences  – white paper by Guided Insights  – downloadable PDF

Navigating Cultural Differences  –  excerpt from our 120 Essential Tips for Leading Amazingly Productive Virtual Teams tips guide

“Delivering Through Diversity,”  McKinsey Report –  January 2018

The Culture Map, excellent book by Erin Meyer

Customized Cross-Cultural Training Workshops from Guided Insights, delivered in person or remotely

Past Communiques:

Head Off Problems Up Front, Before Cultural Differences Get in the Way

11 Expert Tips for Crossing the Cultural Chasm

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