BBC Capital

Expat angst: Four expats reveal cultural surprises

About the author

Andrea Murad is a freelance investing and careers writer based in New York City.

  • Expat culture around the world

    As businesses cross borders and markets become global, there are more opportunities for professionals to go abroad for work. Working in a different country comes with challenges—some of which are hard to prepare for.

    Superficial symbols like a handshake, food, languages and basic etiquette are important to master when working abroad, but how we adapt to cultural conditioning beyond the expected norms goes back to how we were raised.

    “As you continue to do business with people, you have to understand their world view,” said Sheida Hodge, a cross-cultural consultant in Seattle, Washington.

    Even when everyone speaks the same language, challenges arise when the same word means different things in different cultures. For example, “a word like ‘catastrophe’ means a minor issue to the French, but to Germans and Americans, it’s a major issue,” Hodge said.

    Some cultures put business first while others emphasise relationships, and each is distinct, said Priscila Montana, president and chief executive officer of cross-cultural management and training firm Cultural Awareness International in Dallas, Texas.

    But in any culture, the willingness to learn and participate goes a long way.

    BBC Capital spoke with expats living in Germany, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates, the US, Singapore, Chile and Russia, and intercultural experts. Following are edited conversations with each.

  • An Argentine in Russia

    Emilio Alegre has lived in Russia for the past eight years. Born in Argentina and raised in Italy, he spent his career travelling for work. Now, he owns an energy management business in St Petersburg. To assimilate into the culture, he’s learned Russian.

    As an outsider in Russia, you have to build your credibility, Hodge said. That’s done through strong personal relationships. Alegre also had to learn new ways of building relationships — including at a sauna. It’s important, said Hodge, to adapt to local customs. It “could have been anywhere, like a restaurant or someone’s home — it’s just a place people go a lot,” she said.

    BBC Capital: What cultural adaptation has helped you grow your business the most?

    Alegre: If you integrate yourself by speaking the language and following the customs, growing a business is very easy — not just to sell services but to find the right people to work on your team.

    BBC Capital: What was it like to learn the language?

    Alegre: In the beginning, I didn’t speak any Russian. They tried to understand what I was saying. In Italy, when people know you don’t understand, they speak faster. Here, they change drastically and speak very slowly.

    BBC Capital: How is the business culture different than in Europe?

    Alegre: You first build a relationship. If you have no relationship, business will not come. [Russians] want to know you first.

    BBC Capital: How did you get your first big break?

    Alegre: Do you know what a banya is? Three or four men go to a sauna. You take a sauna, then go out and take drinks, and go back to the sauna. One day, my customer invited me to a banya — that’s where the contract was agreed to.

    BBC Capital: Were you surprised?

    Alegre: It was not a surprise — it was a shock! If you don’t accept being integrated into this civilisation, there are no alternatives. You can have the European approach, but the Russian competition will cut you out of the opportunities. (Thinkstock/Emilio Alegre)

  • An American in Germany

    Christine Lin has worked for a multinational American bank in Frankfurt, Germany, for the past four years. She was born in Taiwan, raised in the United States, educated in the US and the Netherlands and spent part of her finance career in New York and London.

    There are many nuances expats face while working in Germany. For one, Germans are very conscious of schedules. Even telephone calls go on a schedule. “When you have to work late, Germans may perceive this as being disorganised,” explained Hodge.

    Those are things Lin has learned along the way, too.

    BBC Capital: What did you expect before moving to Frankfurt?

    Lin: I kept an open-mind — it made it easier to integrate. Now, I notice more and more what’s German and what’s not. There are language and cultural differences. It’s easy to be misunderstood because of the nuances in cultural communication styles. In the United Kingdom, “I’m afraid I might not be able to attend the meeting,” means you won’t be able to attend, but not to a German. Sometimes things are lost in translation when we all speak English together.

    BBC Capital: What’s the work culture like?

    Lin: Work is organised with lots of rules and procedures. Here, people use military time because it’s clearer. And they plan in advance — they like that it’s there and in the calendar.

    When I first came here, to make an appointment with people for lunch, they would plan to have lunch two to three weeks in advance. They’re very precise. If they want to meet today, they say, “Would you like to have a spontaneous lunch?”

    BBC Capital: Your biggest cultural issue so far?

    Lin: As an American, we make jokes before meetings or conference calls but in Germany, no one cracks a smile. You try to break the ice by being humorous. In America, it would have been appreciated.

    BBC Capital: How do you cope?

    Lin: Sometimes you have to laugh it off. I keep an open mind, observe and am willing to try different approaches. (Thinkstock/Christine Lin)

  • A Brit in Singapore

    Andrew Pickup, originally from the United Kingdom, lives in Singapore and works as a communications executive for a multinational software company. He moved to the country 11 years ago.

    Workplace feedback from bosses and subordinates is not nearly as direct in Asian countries as it is elsewhere. You have to follow the lead of those around you, explained Montana. Once you establish a relationship, you can ask for more direct feedback and work becomes a more collaborative effort. That takes time, Pickup learned.

    BBC Capital: What was work like when you first moved?

    Pickup: Since it was a former British colony, my expectations were it would be a mix of English law, English business and English language. When everyone can understand you, it makes your life much easier.

    [But] I was the only expat on the team — they weren’t like me. It was a shock. I tried to apply a European style of leadership and management and it didn’t work.

    BBC Capital: Can you give an example?

    Pickup: In the UK, we had one-on-one personnel meetings every month with employees to check on how they were doing. I always started [by asking], “Do you have any feedback for me?” Employees were transparent and direct. In Singapore, I tried to do the same thing — [employees] were clearly surprised and there was no feedback. This continued for months. It takes longer to tease out upward feedback. It’s not impossible, it just takes longer.

    BBC Capital: How are external meetings with clients different in Asia?

    Pickup: It’s important and normal that you build a relationship and trust first and do the business later. It’s a little abrupt to start talking about business right away. You may start talking about business at the end of a dinner instead of the beginning.

    BBC Capital: What have you learned from working in Asia?

    Pickup: If you’re the only expat in a room full of Asian people, listen and observe more — just be more in the moment. (Andrew Pickup/Thinkstock)

  • An Australian in Dubai

    Debbie Nicol, an Australian entrepreneur with a business focusing on organisational development, has worked around the world. She lived in Dubai from 1997 to 2003 and again since 2006.

    Like many countries in the Middle East, Nicol quickly learned Dubai is a place where religion influences all aspects of life. Schedules can’t conflict with Muslim prayer time, explained Hodge. What’s more, some of the most traditional gestures of western business, like a handshake between a man and a woman, are forbidden. In Islam, you’re not supposed to touch a person of opposite gender who’s not your close family, said Hodge. If you put your hand out by accident, just put it down, she advised.

    BBC Capital: Working in a culture so different than your own must come with some initial cultural hiccups. What were yours early on?

    Nicol: I was in the middle of a lesson, and a guy just stood up and started walking out. I asked where he was going to which he replied he was going to pray. [At first] I was shocked [he was walking out] as my role is to make learning interesting enough to keep people engaged. His reason highlighted the absolute relevance of culture and beliefs to people — and that I need to respect that. Now, I build prayer breaks into all activities.

    BBC Capital: How do you conduct business in the Middle East?

    Nicol: You have coffee and make small talk to get to know each other. The second or third time you’re out, they may tell you the contract will be signed tomorrow without ever talking about the contract. People need to feel that values and morals are in alignment.

    BBC Capital: Do you still make cultural mistakes?

    Nicol: I follow everything consciously, but when I get excited in a business meeting, I get up and put my hand out to shake [a male client’s] hand — I catch myself and touch my head and change the subject.

    I’m not here to teach others at their culture’s expense. No one’s better or worse, we’re just different. (Debbie Nicol/Thinkstock)