BBC Capital

What expats learned: Part II

About the author

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

  • What expats learned: Part II

    On Wednesday, four expats living around the world shared their stories of cultural adjustment and workplace angst. Today, three more expats — an Austrian living in Los Angeles, an American in Chile and a Canadian in Brazil — reveal their biggest challenges when working in a country nothing like their own.

    Superficial symbols like a handshake, food, languages and basic etiquette are important to master when working abroad, and are soon learned by observing and adapting. More problematic, however, can be the cultural conditioning required to really integrate.

    “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.

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

    Here’s what three expats learned about business, relationships and workplace norms.

  • An Austrian in the US

    Marc Mertens grew up in Austria, where he started his own design consultancy. When he was 22, he moved to Los Angeles as part of the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service, an organisation that sends Austrians abroad to work at international Holocaust institutions, to fulfil his mandatory military service. After 14 months in the US, he decided to stay and open another design office.

    Particularly jarring to some expats in the US: the reliance on casual small talk and toss-off answers that are meant to be polite, not to start a discussion. “When Americans say, ‘How are you?’ or ‘We should do lunch’, it means they’re interested but nothing’s scheduled,” explained culture expert D’Angelo. “Building relationships is not as important to Americans — the US is very trusting but in other countries, you have to prove yourself first before they trust you.”

    BBC Capital: What did you think working in the US would be like?

    Mertens: Especially in LA, I was anticipating a superficial culture because of Hollywood [movies], but I ended up getting to know interesting and generous people.

    BBC Capital: What surprised you about the American culture?

    Mertens: In the US, people ask how you’re doing as they’re walking down the hall. I would stop to talk, but Americans don’t really want to know the answer. It’s not a real invitation to start a conversation.

    BBC Capital: What was your biggest cultural issue?

    Mertens: I like sarcastic jokes. Generally, if you crack a sarcastic joke in Austria, no one’s offended. I wasn’t aware that it’s helpful to say the words “just kidding” [after a sarcastic comment] because people don’t get it.

    BBC Capital: What is the worst thing that has happened after you told a joke?

    Mertens: I noticed I wasn’t anyone’s friend at a barbeque one day. One of my friends pulled me aside and said, “You have to say, ‘just kidding’.” It’s an explicitly embarrassing moment — I try to reduce my sarcastic jokes overall now. (Marc Mertens/Thinkstock)

  • An American in Chile

    Hilary Brown worked in New York before moving to Santiago, Chile where she is a corporate finance consultant for a real estate firm. Business is conducted in Spanish, so it’s critical that expats be comfortable with the language.

    Chileans want to get to know you — once they do, they’ll respect you, Montana said. Only after that can you easily ask a question that’s pertinent to your business dealings, she said.

    BBC Capital: What was it like when you first started working in Santiago?

    Brown: I was pretty naïve. I thought it would be a lot easier than it is. You start to notice cultural differences more when you speak the language.

    [Work relationships] are very personal. You can take 30 minutes to talk about life. You can take coffee breaks all the time. Everyone takes an hour for lunch. When we travel together for work trips — they love that we do everything together. They do more things on weekends together, too. The concept of personal space or alone time is nonexistent. It’s a very social culture.

    BBC Capital: How are communication styles different?

    Brown: My co-workers think I’m very aggressive, direct and strict. It’s partially the way Americans would communicate. It’s very hard for Chileans to say something directly — they talk in circles. I have to ask a lot of questions and try to confirm what they’re trying to do. You have to bring attention to a problem in a very circular manner that doesn’t make anyone feel uncomfortable.

    BBC Capital: How do your Chilean colleagues react to your demeanour?

    Brown: I recently found out that my co-workers call me la máquina (the machine). It’s nice for them to think you’re very productive and organised but they also think I’m inflexible, probably.

    BBC Capital: How do you address these differences?

    Brown: Take it easy. Don’t get mad at people for being late. Learn to communicate so people respond. You have to make people feel like you’re on their side. (Hilary Brown/Thinkstock)

  • A Canadian in Brazil

    Sarah McKessick, a Canadian living in Brazil for the past two years, works in human resources for a mining company.

    One thing expats in Brazil quickly encounter: people incorporate English into meetings with foreign colleagues, but they speak their own language at work. What’s more, in most Latin countries, socialising is often the best way to get ahead — in part because it builds rapport and is the forum for the most important work information that you won’t get in office meetings, said Mercedes D'Angelo, director of business development and senior interculturalist at Cultural Awareness International.

    These nuances took McKessick some time to get used to.

    BBC Capital: What has been your biggest adjustment working in Brazil?

    McKessick: Originally we were able to function in English, but in the past year, everything has to be in Portuguese. That’s a big cultural change. If I want my career to grow, I have to speak Portuguese. Most people spoke English with me, but then they’d turn and talk Portuguese about work. [I felt] isolated and out of the loop. It’s still a common feeling — there are a lot of idiosyncrasies that they joke about. But you can’t ask people to stop doing that.

    I have Portuguese class during lunch and then eat at my desk. People joke when I eat at my desk and say, “Oh, you’re having a Canadian lunch.”

    BBC Capital: How are your relationships with your colleagues different in Brazil than in Canada?

    McKessick: It’s hard for Brazilians to give feedback in a positive way. It’s hard for some people to tell you what you could do better. I’ve been here two years and only had official feedback once.

    BBC Capital: What’s your biggest cultural challenge?

    McKessick: I don’t learn languages very easily. My relationships with senior management have to be in Portuguese. Because you have to build the relationships and you have to speak Portuguese, it’s a challenge. Every little opportunity, I try to show that I’m improving.