For many the idea of living abroad is appealing. There’s the challenge of the unknown and anticipation of exciting experiences. Those in the communications profession are often fortunate to work on global campaigns from their home countries. However, crafting culturally sensitive messaging and working with foreign colleagues from home, while helpful, isn’t the same as living abroad.
Tact and diplomacy is needed at home, but in an expat role it takes on heightened importance and is harder to achieve. Always remember you are not only representing your company and profession, but your home country as well. Like it or not, there are some truths in stereotypes. Live up to the positive ones and live counter to the negative ones. You want to represent your nation well.
- Openness: One of my first eye-opening experiences, while living abroad, was during my first week on the job. The CCO of my organization asked me to take the helm to develop a new culture campaign for our organization. I brought together some of the best minds in our department for brainstorming. I had the brief from the executive team, flip charts, markers, cookies…everything was set. Once the team was seated, I went through the direction and the culture diagram written by our executive team. Then I opened up for discussion on what our plan’s objectives and tactics should be, happily anticipating the incredible ideas that were about to come flowing toward me. After a long pause, with the team doing nothing but staring at this hard-charging American, they slowly turned to each other and began debating the word “culture.” It was my first experience in learning that certain things I viewed as “givens” weren’t, and far more consideration and debate went on before action occurred in British culture than the American.
- Focus: Working with international team members often takes extreme concentration. You not only are listening to (what is to your ear) accented English, but also seeking the sometimes subtle differences in word usage or pronunciation. This can be easier in person, where you also get cues from body language, or in email, where the text is available for re-reading. For phone work, I often closed my eyes in order to focus intently on what was being said. If you demonstrate a commitment to understand another’s dialect and culture, it will be noticed and appreciated. As important: When you fail, you’ll likely be forgiven.
- Understanding of local vs. global: Many of us have heard the phrase “Act Global, Think Local.” This is incredibly true for expats in international assignments. Often an expat has to act as a negotiator between the U.S. office and other countries’ representatives. When I arrived in the U.K., my British colleagues were relieved I could “explain things to the Americans.” Meanwhile my American colleagues were thrilled I could “explain things to the British.” One of our major sticking points was the use of British spelling in U.S. publications. Being able to fully explain and articulate the local issues can help an organization be more successful in acting globally.
- Independence: While being independent on an international assignment may sound counterintuitive, remember that most of those you meet in your work life have established lives within their local communities. Expat communities are great for camaraderie and those moments when you just need someone who understands your craving for Kraft Mac & Cheese, but recognize that you may find yourself alone regularly. Be ready to discover your new abode on your own. Homesickness is best fought with a new adventure, whether within your adopted country or beyond its borders.
- Coming home: Returning home from an expat assignment can sometimes be the most difficult transition. Heading to a new country, you are expecting change. Returning home after a few years can result in a different sort of culture shock. Changes in your relationships with friends and family should be expected. Everything from local restaurants to scenery to TV programs can change. Balancing the experiences that you have had with the changes in your hometown and appreciating these changes can help you continue to share and support broader cultural awareness upon your return.
Expat assignments are fantastic journeys that can lead to better relations both at home and abroad within your company. Jump at the opportunity, but be mindful of the personal and professional ramifications and responsibilities that come with it.
Jessica Nielsen is a communications consultant, an adjunct professor in PR and corporate communications at Georgetown University, and held previous leadership positions at Lockheed Martin, Dell Services and more.