Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Why is Intercultural Training for expats so important?

Because it is! OK, so I'm expected to say that aren't I? If I was working in the mobile phone industry, I'd probably be saying that you can't live without the newest handset.

But in this case there are serious objective reasons why preparing expats in advance of a move abroad is important. There is plenty of research available, some of it quite recent that gives the return on investment, and the statistics showing that expats who have been prepared are more efficient, settle better, and improve the company's image in the host country – but again, we are in a generation that doesn't tend to believe statistics. I also agree that not all pre-departure training is the same, and that I am speaking with experience of one (and of course in my opinion the best!) provider – Farnham Castle

So let's try and look at some of the issues involved in relocating a family to a new country and how a good pre-departure training session can help.

Culture Shock

"Culture shock is a term used to describe the anxiety and feelings (of surprise, disorientation, confusion, etc.) felt by an individual caused by coming into contact with an entirely different environment, such as a different country. It often relates to the inability to assimilate the new culture, causing difficulty in knowing what is appropriate and what is not. Often this is combined with strong disgust (moral or aesthetical) about certain aspects of the foreign culture. "

Anxiety and stress are suffered by 1 in 5 UK employees (http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/Employment/Employees/HealthAndSafetyAtWork/DG_10026604 ). It is one of the biggest causes of sick leave, and is an element in relationship breakdowns. UK employers are obliged by law to take steps to alleviate workplace stress. Reread the definition of culture shock above – it has much in common with stress, and it is an element of stress that can be removed. The surprise and confusion elements can be almost entirely removed by preparing employees for the different culture they will be encountering. If you know in advance that Brazil is a very hierarchical country and that time is more flexible, then you are not going to be overly concerned that your boss constantly keeps you waiting, and is quite distant. As a Brit I expect to have quite a friendly relationship with my line manager at work, and that if we arrange a meeting for 3pm, s/he will make every effort to be there on time, and won't be late back from lunch.

A genuine example at a very basic level. A Brit was hugely frustrated by his US boss: he had emailed a suggestion to him before an important strategy meeting. He had taken a lot of time and effort into researching figures and predictions, and was confident that, although radical, there was a lot of potential. His US boss emailed back "I think we'll table that proposal". Leaving aside the level of context provided, if you are more used to UK English, you will understand that the Brit was hugely disappointed that his proposal was not even mentioned at the strategy meeting, and in fact in this instance he assumed that his boss had stolen the idea and presented it as his own in a private meeting with senior management. Those more familiar with US English will be astounded that the Brit was so upset – he had been told quite clearly that his proposal had been set aside.

I will freely admit that even the most detailed cultural training programme will not give you a list of every single nuance in vocabulary (in UK English, "to table" means to put something on the agenda; in the US it means to leave off the agenda), however every decent cultural awareness session will help you to question and to look for reasons behind unexpected reactions. The session will show you the essential values of the host culture (i.e whether relationships are more important, what level of detail you are expected to provide in a proposal, fluidity of time etc) and will help you to create a personal and business strategy to cope with the major points of difference.

In any workplace your family life will have an effect on your productivity, and yet when someone is relocated to a foreign country we move the whole family (including partner and children) away from their social support networks, possibly from work and schools and insert them into a completely new environment. Add to that a possible new language as well and you're leaving a partner with no friends, no job and huge difficulty talking to neighbours or even going shopping for essentials. Boredom can become a huge factor and that leads to niggling about all the differences, a constant unfavourable comparison with "back home". More importantly is the availability of a wonderful scapegoat for all the normal problems of life – "this wouldn't have happened if you hadn't taken this job!"

Cultural training not only prepares the family for some of the issues, it can provide you with introductions to expat networks, give you advice on where to find essential items, and much more. However one of the main benefits is that the sponsoring company is showing its willingness to involve the family in the relocation. Possibly for the first time, "trailing spouses" are involved in their partners' careers – the training includes (or should include) elements for the whole family. It also raises some of the issues that will be faced, suggests options for fighting off boredom and can help finding ways of making friends outside the expat community.


Any organisation that offers pre-departure training will give you the benefits of it, but in my view you should be asking several evaluating questions:

Do the trainers have personal experience of the country?

Have they recently lived in the country as expats? (Although locals have insider information, living as an expat is VERY different from living as a native)

Does the training cover the practical as well as cultural aspects?


One final tip for expats in conclusion:

Even before you arrive in your new country you will probably be planning a return trip home quite quickly, to visit friends and relatives. My advice is to make the trip back to your "home" country the second trip you make. I would always advise going on a short holiday to a third country, preferably one you have never visited before. The reason is fairly simple: when you come back from holiday, you go "home". In order to settle properly in your host country it must feel like home, but if you only visit relatives in your "home" country, going back will in fact will be just "going away" again.



kels said...

Hi I just came across your blog and it is super interesting. My husband and I are leaving for a year to travel in Central and South America and we are hoping that we might be able to find work while we are there (hopefully not teaching English). Do you think this is a possibility? I have intermediate Spanish though we are planning to do some intensive lessons while in Mexico.

MattMacL said...

Thanks for the comments.

Central and South America are not my strong points, but as a general rule, and one that international recruiters would agree with, you should find out what you can offer that a local doesn't have, and focus on that. Speaking English is not really enough, because it's easy enough to teach a local English that to teach a foreigner the business specific skills required (and more longterm benefit too).

All I can say is good luck, and have fun trying!

angelin said...

At its most general level intercultural training is about providing people going to work in foreign countries with the know-how to ensure they settle in and work well in their new surroundings. As well as preparing an individual or family for the ups and downs of culture shock such intercultural courses also prepare people for some of the weird and wonderful sights, smells and sounds they will be coming across.
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