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Cross Culture in Business and Everyday Life:
Understanding the Expatriate

by Daniela Montabaur

 
   
 
   

The phone rings at 3:00am and it is not a prank call. It is your son. "Hi Dad, I'm sorry I forgot what time it is for you in California. I just left the Bangkok airport… sorry to wake you. Bye."

After an interrupted night's sleep, Mr. Vice President of Technology Inc. heads into the office, "Tall Latte" in hand, to prepare for the conference call with the international sales team in Milan, Italy. Figures are reported and the outline for the next quarter is set.

"It would be great if you could send me the report by the end of the week," said Mr. VP. By Friday the report has not arrived. Mr.VP is disappointed and the Italian staff has no idea why.

"We were extremely busy and sending one report did not seem to be priority! You said 'it would be great' -- meaning good if you get the report and not a problem if you don't. Right?"

Wrong. Any North American reading this at the moment is sure what Mr. VP meant. The report is priority number one! Simply receiving the language without grasping the cultural background can lead to miscommunication. How well do we really know each other?

Trust in Business (TiB), an international relocation company based in Munich, Germany, works together with business partners from the Americas, Asia and Europe, to ensure that these types of culture bumps are smoothed out. Here are several tips from TiB to help you integrate cross culturally into business and everyday life. Begin to untangle the mysteries in the life of the expatriate.

Understanding the expatriate

If you have family living in other countries; are an expatriate yourself; work in a global company; have a neighbor who is from another country or ethnicity; have friends, business partners, or classmates of cultures different than your own, then you are automatically trying to understand the vibrant display of cultural backgrounds around you.

Here are some simple tips to bring you cross-culture success. Take your difficult yet glamorous, adventurous yet tiring expatriate life and transform it into a rewarding experience.

Even if you are not the one living in another country but have frequent contact with someone who does, our hints will enable you to help the expatriates you know integrate into the culture, while teaching you a bit about their culture as well. It is a win-win philosophy that is moving up the ranks in global business and will move you up the ladder of success.

"There has never been a more important time for the world to reach out to each other and be more than just tolerant but willing to learn," said Anne Koark, British, President and founder of Munich-based Trust in Business.

What makes it tricky?

We often take it for granted that our sense of being polite, normal, rude, friendly etc. must be understood by the people we deal with. But this is not the case.

Christian Steuer, German, 26, attending a Texas University replied, "I wondered why a woman from Japan did not reply to a question from a professor in my class right away. She was looking down on her desk and it took her at least one minute, of what I felt was extreme awkward silence, until she looked up again and responded to the professor. In the beginning of my cross culture class I thought her behavior was rude. But I learned that my behavior in the same situation (answering as soon as possible) would have been very rude and impolite in her culture. The difference in our cultures is that in Japan people expect you to think deeply about what you reply to an authority or person of respect."

Western European culture tries to answer a person's question quickly - otherwise it is assumed that there is insecurity or doubt about his/her response.

Europeans living in America experience confront difficulties. At an American restaurant, diners automatically receive the check without asking for it. For most Europeans unfamiliar to the American style of dining, it is rude. The dining atmosphere can turn from cozy and enjoyable to uncomfortable and rushed for Europeans eating in typical North American restaurants.

Cultures' basic similarities and their expressions

It's true that we all share the same basic human emotions in our lives, such as love, hate, anger and passion. However, each culture has a distinct way of expressing those emotions and has different attitudes behind this expression - also in business matters. We have to learn to overcome culture bumps beyond the simple belief of tolerance.

Living as an expatriate

Everybody who decides to live in another culture goes through a cultural adjustment cycle before he/she adapts to the new environment. People go through the cycle at their own pace - some take longer to go through the cycle and others pass through it quickly.

There are five different stages of the adjustment cycle, taking the expatriate from the first day of residence in the new culture to a settled life in the new environment.

Expatriate Amy Hart, North Carolina native now living and working for 11 months in Munich, Germany, helps us differentiate between the five different stages of the adjustment cycle.

1. Honeymoon Stage
The first stage Hart went through was the honeymoon stage. Everything in her new surroundings was new to her and exciting and interesting. She had the feeling of a dream finally coming true and being right in the middle of a great adventure. It was interesting to organize a German bank account and find the perfect German apartment to live in. Overall, Hart was in a light-hearted mood. Just like a honeymoon, the bliss of beginning a new life can be rose-colored, and happy and hopeful for most expatriates.

2. Culture Shock
After approximately six to eight weeks, Hart moved into the culture shock stage. "Overall, I hated the feeling of not being able to be independent. It is as if you are a child again. Your personal freedom is suddenly taken away from you," said Hart.

Typical for this stage of the cycle you can physically feel that something is not right. Hart complained about frequent headaches, and her stomach was upset at random times. She felt a little tired and not able to concentrate and focus on her work perfectly. Her sleeping patterns changed as well. She started thinking of her friends and family back home and felt homesick.

The fear of not being able to succeed cast shadows on her initial honeymoon stage dreams. Hart felt she was living with one foot in her American culture -- and at the same time having the other foot in the German culture. This stage lasted for about another eight weeks.

3. Initial Adjustment Stage
After the culture shock period, Hart went into what we call initial adjustment stage and started connecting with people from Germany in social and business situations. Though she was still missing her home country, she gained self-reliance in Germany. Being needed in her company helped her make a bigger step into finding her place in German culture.

It was hard for her to realize that she then had to go through another stage of negative feelings. And for many expatriates this stage feels like it should be the end of the cycle. It is not.

Pennsylvania expatriate Kelly Payne lived and worked in Germany and Japan. She found it easier to enter this stage of initial adjustment when she learned to relax and flow with the lifestyle of her new host country as it differed from her own.

Typically, North Americans are constantly active. Overall, trying to crowd as many activities into an hour as possible is considered productive. Wasting time is seen as wasting money. In cultures where there is less emphasis on competition, people are able to let time "fill itself", or place more emphasis on quality of actions rather than quantity of actions. North Americans, in contrast, need to do something useful every second.

Many North Americans will use time while they are driving a car to learn a new language or dictate letters, rather than just meditating or enjoying the landscape.

During the initial 40-minute subway rides to work in Germany, Payne felt the urge to not waste time but rather to be "doing something".

"When I forgot to take my book at home or my Walkman with me, I felt so useless just sitting in the subway without any task to do. It took a while until I learned not to feel guilty when I just enjoyed watching people or letting my mind wander around," said Payne.

4. Mental Isolation
Mental isolation follows what seems to be the end for expatriates adjusting into their new culture. Step 3 --the "Initial Adjustment" stage-- is a beginning adjustment but is temporary, to be followed by another wave of integration ups and downs.

During this stage, Hart really needed support and help from her friends and co-workers. Hart felt anger against the host culture and had self-doubt, wondering if she did the right thing in her decision to live in Europe. "Maybe the people back home are forgetting about me," said Hart.

She complained about the fact that everything is "verboten"(forbidden) in Germany and the food was different. People were staring at her in a way she was not used to. "I sometimes felt as if I had an imaginary American flag on my forehead. People just knew even before I spoke. I got the 'you're different' type of look," said Hart. She lost her motivation for learning German and you could see a difference in her personality. She was not the girl straight off the plane from America. The sparkles in her eyes were dimming but the knowledge in her mind was blossoming as she transitioned.

I understand completely what Amy went through. My mental isolation stage was identical when I left my native Germany to study at a University in Texas. One incident remains vivid in my mind. I wrote a letter to a company and received a "short and sweet" answer in return. I found it rude and way too short for my experience in German business matters. I complained about the "rude and impolite way to deal with clients," because I did not know at that point that this style of "coming to the point quickly" is just a way of responding fast and saving time. Time is money in American culture.

5. Acceptance and Integration
Finally, Hart entered the last stage of the culture adaptation cycle. This stage we call acceptance and integration. She stopped trying to change the host culture and stopped making constant comparison to her own American way. She developed strategies for everyday life here in Germany. She was willing to take German classes again, tried to speak German to everyone in the office and seemed to be more content and less moody.

"My sense of time was mixed up in the first months here in Germany. When I went to a restaurant with my German friends, I always felt strange when my European peers kept sitting at the table for another hour after finishing dinner. I felt the urge to pay for the meal and leave. I was ready to go to another bar or café.

I learned to not be in such a rush and to have dinner for two and half hours compared to 45 minutes. I began to let go of the feeling that having a tight schedule was important and productive."

Keys to success

"In order to be successful, you have to get into the position of the person you deal with and you have to see through his/her eyes," said Henry Ford.

Stereotypes are dangerous when taken as truth. The key to overcoming cultural difficulties is being willing to look behind the façade of faces and learn to understand the attitudes for expressing the basic human emotions we all share. Each person is an individual, with different experiences and a member of a culture with his/her own perceptions. Even viewed by twin brothers, one particular event can never be exactly the same experience for different individuals.Once individuals come from different cultural backgrounds the possibility of having completely different perceptions of the same event or situation increases highly.

"You can only see what you know" is a phrase on a German tour operator's brochure. Learning is the key to understanding and understanding is the key to cooperation.

Ask the dumb questions!
Being willing to ask why people act like they do is very important. Humans tend to make judgmental observations. However, continual learning needs to occur beyond the point of noticing differences. Explore thoroughly a person's culture by trying to describe what is seen, and then ask yourself how you could interpret the moves, gestures, facial and body expressions.

Lean on others
Expats should try to connect with people, since the fear and feeling of being alone is certainly the most dangerous threat to our peace of mind. They should try to find other expats to talk with regularly.

Luciano de Crescenze, an Italian author, wrote " Everyone of us is an angel with one wing and we can only fly if we hug each other."

Stay healthy
Exercising and getting enough sleep are also highly recommended to deal better with changing eating patterns and unfamiliar physical symptoms during culture shock.

Laugh
Humor is an important word in this context. In difficult or unfamiliar situations try to think in a positive way and try to laugh about what is happening instead of complaining right away.

Seek help
There are also people who are specialized in helping expats to adapt to their new environment from the psychological side. Julie Epp, Canadian psychologist living in Berlin, counsels expatriates to cope with the stresses of expat life.

"On a deeper level, getting to know another culture, another language, setting up a new life in new surroundings - all of these things can increase our ability to see ourselves and our lives from different perspectives. And being so far away from home and from our past can also make it easier to drop some of the burdensome psychological baggage we have been carrying around," said Epp.

Many companies have services available for their employees and families to help them integrate into new environments. Ask your Human Resource department in your firm for information on intercultural training. Government organizations, embassies and relocation firms also have a wealth of knowledge and can help with cross cultural issues.

When expatriates want to become part of a new culture it helps to contact a relocation company, which can give important hints and advice.

Just when you feel you mastered cultural integration into your new society, going back to your home culture will bring on a new, unexpected cultural adjustment cycle again. But, no need to worry, you have been pre-warned. At least you know there is another roller coaster ride in store. And this one could be fun now that you have learned to take the highs and lows of expatriate life with ease.


     
   
     
   

The Author

 

Daniela Montabaur writes about cross-cultural training as a veteran expatriate. A German native, she participated in a cross-cultural training program at the University of Texas. She works with Trust in Business, located in Munich, Germany.

     
   
     
   
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Copyright 2002 by Daniela Montabaur. All rights reserved.

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