Keep your eyes and ears open
Working in a foreign country is a challenge and a learning experience at the same time. The single most important advice on adapting to a new working culture is to keep your eyes and ears open. Observe the people you work with. How are they dressed? How do they communicate? How do men and women interact? How do they respond to challenges? Try to adapt to their way of doing business.
You don’t have to become who they are, but willingness to learn and adapt shows respect. Remember that the learning experience should go both ways: Your new colleagues can learn a lot from you, but you can also learn a lot from them.
A multicultural working environment
It is an advantage to learn about the working culture in your new country in advance, for instance by talking to other people who have worked there. However, keep in mind that you will not be working in a typical work environment of that country, but rather in a multicultural setting. The working culture you will meet will be a complex mix of:
- Local working culture.
- The working culture of the international staff at the office.
- The overall organizational culture.
While there may to some extent be a common organizational culture across the world, it will always be influenced by the working culture of the local environment as well as the working cultures brought to the office by international staff, such as yourself. Furthermore, the working cultures you will be exposed to might be very diverse - depending on whether you are stationed in a headquarters' office, a regional office, a country office in a capital or an office on a more remote area.
It will also be impacted by the working cultures of the different partners you are working with - government authorities, NGOs or other external partners, for example. The complexity of the environment you will be working in makes it even more important to keep your eyes and ears open to how the people around you work and interact.
Doing business in…
… a multicultural working environment, you may come across many different ways of communicating, many different perceptions of the relations between subordinate and superior, different types of meetings and different approaches to negotiations, just to name a few examples. Below is a brief introduction to different ways of doing business around the globe. Use it as an introduction to the business cultures you may encounter, but do make an effort to find more detailed information about the particular country you will be working in.
Amath, JPO: "Enriched by other cultures" (2:56)
Many cultures value the importance of long term relations, both in private and in a business context. This is reflected in the way people communicate, which is often referred to as “high context” communication. It means that you need an understanding of the context, or long term knowledge of the people you communicate with, to fully understand what is said as all might not be said explicitly.
The indirect communication style can sometimes result in a tendency to avoid conflicts, because conflicts would damage the valuable personal relations. The Asian communication style is an example of high context communication. Many Arab, African and Latin American countries are also in this category.
Other cultures, however, are “low context” in their communication styles. In these cultures, people do not depend on a common point of reference or long term personal relations to the same extent as people of high context cultures. On the contrary, they have a direct communication style and get straight to the point, which people from high context cultures might find insensitive. This is typical for North America and many European cultures.
The importance of long term relations in some cultures is also reflected in the way they are organized. In these cultures, superior and subordinate relationships are typically important and decisions are often made by management and communicated to the rest of the organization.
But to maintain the valuable personal relations, consensus is a high priority as well. People in these cultures usually accept their place in the hierarchy, which is often determined by seniority, status and age. This can be said about many Asian and Arab countries and some parts of Europe, Africa and Latin America.
On the other hand, other cultures find equality and individualism central. Decisions are made by managers, but there is made an effort to involve the group. Workers are generally expected to show initiative and to work independently. This is true for North America and some parts of Europe.
In cultures where hierarchy is pronounced, meetings are typically formal. To maintain good personal relations, an effort is made to maintain group harmony. Meetings will not often be used to point out errors, and the opinions raised typically have the interest of the group in mind. Furthermore, in these cultures, meetings often start informally to build long term relations. This can be said about Asia, Latin America and some African countries.
In other cultures, meetings are typically used for disseminating information, consulting and making decisions. Meetings are either with employees from the same level of the organization or with people from different levels. All interact informally and confrontations are seen as a natural part of the process. This is particularly true about North American and European cultures.
In cultures which focus on long term relations and group harmony, negotiations are more a place for building relationships than for bargaining. In these cultures, people often do not mind competitive negotiations, but many deals may be made behind the scenes. In a negotiation situation, focus is typically on long term collaboration rather than competition. This can be said about Asian, Latin American and Arab cultures.
In other cultures, negotiations usually have the goal of resolving issues, making decisions and reaching agreements. The primary concern is the bottom line and short term results. Conflicts and compromises are a natural part of negotiations and disagreements are not seen as negative. This is typically the case for North American and European cultures.
Do you recognize any of these cultural traits from your own culture?
What is the business culture like in your new host culture? Learn more by checking the references below and the internet.
Which approach would you use to solve a specific, work-related problem in your home country? What possible cultural differences might affect your ability to solve the problem in your host culture? How would you need to alter your approach to successfully reach the same goal in your host culture?
References for this section
Geert Hofstede: “Culture’s consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values”, 1984.
Geert Hofstede Website: http://geert-hofstede.com/
Data per country: http://geert-hofstede.com/countries.html
Terence Brake, Danielle Medina Walker and Thomas Walker: “Doing Business Internationally: The Guide to Cross-Cultural Success”, 1995.