Living cross-culturally can be an adventure, but many people return home unsatisfied. How will you fulfill your overseas expectations? The answer may surprise you.
After years of working in international job placement services, my wife and I spent our sabbatical year in Beirut, Lebanon. Our knowledge did not fully prepare us for the experiences we faced.
Here are four surprising lessons that changed our mind about successful cross-cultural living.
- Your job skills do not guarantee cross-cultural success.
As the director of a 7-person department in the U.S., I had management skills: team development; project planning; and training. But those did not help me to learn Arabic; deal with chronic loss of electricity; or understand the importance of wasta (influence).Your cross-cultural skills are just as important as your job skills. They can derail you or help you to succeed. If you doubt this, see what happens when you move to Shanghai and fail to take off your shoes as you enter the home of your new boss!
- Culture differences are just as important as culture similarities.
When Sameer invited me to tea for the first time, I expected a pleasant cultural exchange. Imagine my surprise when his first words were about American politics and religion. Americans might be put off by Arab bluntness. And uncomfortable about religion and politics. Avoiding these topics may suggest that you disrespect your host.Yes, we all share some similarities between us: we want to enjoy our jobs, to have a good family, to lead a peaceful and satisfying life.There are also strong differences. Knowing this will help you to work effectively with Adi from Jakarta, who won’t give you the latest production figures, even though you know he is a hard worker.
- Humility will get you further than you think.
We learned a lot about hospitality from a man who didn’t like us.As the only Americans in our Shiite neighborhood, we stood out in the community. Ameen, a local leader, scowled every time I greeted him during my walks. He did not want Westerners in his neighborhood.One Saturday morning, we piled some American guests into our car so we could enjoy some fabulous Lebanese food. But the battery was dead. And we didn’t have jumper cables.
The gathering crowd gave us advice in Arabic. We didn’t know enough Arabic (yet) to understand anything. As our frustration grew, Ameen walked by and asked a bystander what was happening.
Suddenly, he pulled out his cell phone. Yusef pulled up in his truck within two minutes. And Jamal came out of his shop with two lengths of wire. Wearing gloves, they jumped my battery. Relieved, we thanked Ameen.
His surprising response: “You are our neighbors. We had to help you.”
Our need became an opportunity to experience hospitality. Humility breaks down barriers and opens the door to friendship.
- Pay attention to yourself and your family.
Because we lived in a lower-class neighborhood, electricity was in short supply. Living on generator power forced us to make tough decisions. Do I turn on the A/C for some relief from high humidity? Or does Karen run the clothes washer?After a few weeks of irritable conversation, we learned to solve these things together. Our communication improved because we worked with each other. We learned to understand each other’s needs. Not only for work, but also for rest and recreation.Your job depends on your awareness of your family’s needs. A recent survey reveals that spouse/partner dissatisfaction is one of the top reasons for the failure of an overseas assignment. So it pays off to pay attention to what your loved ones are thinking and feeling. To find ways to make your assignment an adventure.
None of these lessons have anything directly related to their job. But they have everything to do with your success.
So which of them surprises you the most?
At MOSAIC, we believe that the keys to cross-cultural success are engaging with the people in your new culture; adapting to your local environment; and thriving in the midst of change. Choosing these practices will help you succeed in your cross-cultural assignment. We are looking forward to helping you.
We are interested to know what you think. We invite your comments below.
Dr. Don Allen
Latest posts by Dr. Don Allen (see all)
- Andrew Luck’s amazing secret for cross-cultural success - January 24, 2014
- Four Surprising Secrets to Cross-Cultural Success - October 25, 2012