Professional culture shock

So you’ve found a job in your new country, made the move, and started work. Well done! If everything is going swimmingly, then you’ve cracked the first few numbers of the cultural code. If not, you may be suffering from double culture shock; professional culture shock and cultural.

Almost everyone feels anxious when starting a new job. You wonder whether you’ll be liked and how you will handle the responsibilities and workload.

On top of these normal anxieties you find yourself in a foreign country, perhaps struggling to learn a new language as well as figuring out how the telephone and the coffee machine work. The biggest fear new recruits often report is that they don’t live up to the linguistic or skills expectations that they may have raised in the job interview.

It can be tough knowing your company has spent a lot of money on bringing you into their firm. And while all this is still to be expected, what often takes people aback is the inevitable clash between their own national and workplace culture and the new working environment.

Company vs. Country Culture

More than two thirds of adult employees recognize the importance of adapting to their company’s environment in order to succeed in the organization, according to Randstad, the world’s second largest HR service provider. But it’s not always easy to see where the separation lies between company culture and the native national culture. Your mind will be doing overtime trying to figure out the rules by constantly observing and listening to the social codes; as well as trying to get on with your new job.

So the first rule is that in those early months, despite wanting to make the best impression and work your socks off, make sure you allow your poor psyche regular downtime from this double cultural adaptation process and exercise patience. It will serve you well in the long term.

One of my absolute favourite books on this subject is Cultural Intelligence by Brooks Peterson, because he directly addresses our psyche’s need to go into a binary ‘my way’ and ‘their way’ thinking.

An example. In some cultures, asking questions is seen as an expression of being a responsible and ‘eager to learn’ employee; even some recruitment companies advise you to ask a lot of questions at the start to make a good impression. However, in other cultures this is not seen as being positive, curious and willing to learn, but as a sign that you are not able to cope, or even as being rude and questioning the authority of your managers. If you find yourself being pushed from pillar to post because no one gives you a clear answer, then you may be in a national, or a company culture where no one owns responsibility for mistakes unless they are put in a senior position. And then hierarchy dictates that they are always right. As Peterson suggests, it is helpful to do a bit of research about the national culture that you have become part of and remember that, say, a Japanese company in Luxembourg may be more Japanese in its ‘hidden rules’ than European. Peterson also comments that much of our own and others’ cultural behaviours are unconscious, which means that a well-intended question or reflection on ‘is this how you all behave here?’ can be genuinely misunderstood. So don’t be afraid to announce the fact that you are a newcomer and a foreigner and that you fully expect to be putting your foot in it occasionally. If you can laugh about it, others will too.

Relationships with your co-workers

How you build relationships with your co-workers is an important step in the process of settling in. I have found that for most people it has served them to keep a bit of a low profile at first and observe the social codes. In your enthusiasm to please, you may not notice how your own cultural conditioning doesn’t fit with how ‘we do things’ here. One of my clients told me, “I came from New York with a very American ‘shooting the breeze’ kind of approach when I first started working here, but I seemed to meet a lot of resistance.”

Another sore point may be that new colleagues aren’t always forthcoming in including newcomers in their lunches or after work engagements. Others hoped that they would have had more help settling in, but have instead been left to their own devices. But perhaps these colleagues are just reluctant to intrude on your privacy; it might not be that they’re not inviting YOU as a person, they’re just letting time do the hard work for them and suddenly one day you’ll find yourself heading out of the door with them at lunchtime, without any explicit invitations ever being issued.

Be patient, and avoid falling into the ‘everybody hates me’ trap and then start acting like they already do. They don’t.

They’re probably just checking you out and having their own internal cultural adjustment process. This even happens in multi-cultural companies, where you would think everyone might meld into a unified global identity.

Timing is everything

National recruiters generally advise clients to expect things to be tough for the first three months. With international recruitment, I would extend that to anywhere from six months to a year. Remember, first impressions often only tell us something about the superficial layer of the new culture, so it’s probably wise to wait a few months before judging your new situation too harshly.

New colleagues and managers seldom want to be compared to previous colleagues or managers, especially if you add a cultural twist. If you find yourself wanting to suggest they try and do things more like ‘we do in Holland’ or ‘we do in Canada’, you have gotten caught in what Peterson calls the ‘the hummingbird versus the turtle’ dilemma and you are bound to get some resistance. Of course, it’s natural for us to compare one with the other, and your insight may be very valuable. But save them until you find who would be sympathetic to your ideas, or when asked for an assessment by your managers.

Internal combustion

Inevitably there will, at some point, be a conflict between the ‘old you’ and the ‘new you’, usually in the second half of your first international assignment year. Your psyche has been watching and observing, trying out to figure out the conscious and the unconscious codes, both corporate and cultural and you have been adjusting to these insights as best you can. We do so much want to make the right impression from the start.

And there will also have been some time for your mind to begin to miss the ‘mirrors’ from home that tell us who we are and how we should act. While being in a new environment is an excellent opportunity to have new aspects of ourselves mirrored back, we sometimes just need to be seen for who we know ourselves to be best.

When a colleague of mine said ‘well done Lysanne’ in Dutch, six months into my first foreign job in London, I immediately burst into tears. It felt like a much needed homegrown slice of appreciation.

The most wonderful and the most challenging psychological aspect of living and working away from your own culture is that you don’t need to become a different you, but that there can become more of you. My American client now says “I can be both ‘American’ in my way of meeting clients and colleagues, and be proud of that, but I also know when to melt into the background and be more like the locals. I am freer to be who I am, because I adjust, not to please others, but to help me perform better. The choice is mine.”

So enjoy the adventure of your new international workplace. Don’t be too eager to have it all together within the first few weeks, try to distinguish between the new culture, in and outside of your new workplace; and sit on your comparisons for a while until you’ve seen the underlying motivations behind surface behaviour. Most importantly, don’t lose who you are in the process; see your new situation as an opportunity to let go of parts of yourself that are no longer useful, and to embrace the new parts your host culture has helped find.

Lysanne Sizoo

5th January 2020

Lysanne Sizoo is an experienced coach and counsellor with a special expertise in working with people who have made their home abroad. She can help you optimise your foreign experience and handle the excellent challenges that will inevitably pop up. 

Sizoo Coaching & Counselling at zensan

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