Overcoming Cultural Differences in the Workplace

Taking your career abroad can be a dream. Working and living abroad can be one of the most insightful learning experiences that will help grow and develop your career as a professional.

The move, setting up a new home, meeting new people and starting your career in another country is exciting. You have likely planned many details of your transition, but did you also stop to consider how you will adapt to the local environment? You should not underestimate the importance of adapting to cultural differences, such as traditions in work culture or interpersonal interaction. In full transparency, you will encounter them.

Cultural differences will occur in all your spaces – living area and community, workplace, social/entertainment spaces and school (if you have school-age children as part of your move). We often think about our immediate surroundings first, such as how to interact with your neighbors, how to use local transportation or what are the protocols at the local market.

However, cultural differences also play a role in the workplace. Being aware of those common cultural differences will enable you to:

 

-Interact with and be relatable to your colleagues

-Avoid misunderstanding and needless conflicts in the workplace

-Increase your abilities to work in a cross-cultural work environment

-Build international and intercultural skills

  •  

So, after you have accepted the job offer, planning and learning cultural adaptation strategies will be essential. These skills will help you thrive and find belonging in your new location. Here are some of the important steps to put into action.

Research Your Location

No move to another country is ever complete without conducting vital research and, in this case, much of it will be about the cultural nuances unique to your new home. Your task is not just to learn about the local daily culture, but also about the workplace culture of your new country. What tends to be standard practice in the workplace culture of your home country might not be acceptable in another. For instance, how do people address and communicate with each other in the workplace? And how much value is placed on non-verbal communication? Is your workplace and its culture ‘high-context or low-context’? 

Let me explain ‘high-context and low context’ so as to increase your readiness for your new location. 

Another way to help with understanding the cultural difference in nonverbal communication is understanding the difference between high context and low context cultures. 

High-context cultures rely more on nonverbal communication than low-context cultures. They use personal relationships, social hierarchies and cultural knowledge to convey meaning. 

In ‘low-context’ cultures, words are more important. Communication is direct, relationships begin and end quickly, and hierarchies are relaxed.  (Source: Top 8 Cultural Differences in Nonverbal Communication)

Source- Differences in high-context and low-context communication styles

Spend a few moments to study and understand the differences and where your new location/country might fit in this communication style. Becoming aware of and understanding these differences will enable you to adapt more easily, especially to your work environment.

Observations Are Essential

Use a less technologically driven method to understand the cultural differences around you – look, listen and learn. Working abroad will require you to increase your sense of sight and hearing as vital learning tools. When trying to adjust and adapt to a different culture, adopt the practice of observing. In your first few weeks in the office, spend time observing your work environment. Pay keen attention to how your colleagues engage and interact with each other and how the operations work.

Reflect and see what you can take away from these observations. Challenge yourself to learn the differences and think of ways that you can engage with your colleagues effectively. Adjusting to daily life and adapting to a new job and work culture can and will be overwhelming, so have patience.

As you manage your work responsibilities while adjusting to your environment, tap into ready resources such as your work leadership or your team. Seeking advice and tips from counterpart colleagues when you are struggling will ease your frustrations. Do not underestimate their ability to help you, provide support and understand the challenges you are facing.

Assumptions Can Undermine

Your excitement and eagerness can lead to a pitfall – assumptions. Although you did your research and started your observations, you still can make cultural faux pas. Sometimes, when managing cultural differences, particularly in the workplace, it might be easy to misinterpret someone’s behaviors or intentions. When you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation, avoid making immediate assumptions. Take a moment to ask questions that address the awkwardness of the situation. Remember, making assumptions often comes from a lack of understanding which often leads to unnecessary conflicts.

Rather than assume why a person is behaving or responding in a certain manner, seek to understand by just asking for clarification. Asking questions gives you insight for now and the future.

Open-mindedness is Key

Living and working in another country requires an open mind and attitude; both can take you a long way in your adjustment. Let’s be honest, life away from familiarities such as your family and friends can create difficult times, including occasional feelings of loneliness. However, you need to be practical about your adjustment and adaptation to a new culture and work environment; it will not happen overnight. You may have to struggle with the work cultures or daily life differences. Know that these feelings and actions are quite normal and that is absolutely fine.

Being open is why you accepted the offer and moved. So, give yourself room to adjust to the experiences as a process. Remember, explore your new place by diving into activities outside of work. Keeping an open mind includes taking an interest by interacting with locals, learning the language and attending cultural or social events. By the way, your local colleagues can serve as great resources for how to join various local events and opportunities.

Summing it All Up

Your move to work in another country is about experiences, skills and growth. Your most valuable growth tool is learning to understand, navigate and manage cultural differences. Yes, those feelings of overwhelmingness, confusion, and being misunderstood will eventually be replaced with a new sense of normal practices that fit within your new cultural context.

To go a bit further, you might even feel that you have changed but instead think of it as being open to new work practices and your daily routines as being based upon the local context. Once you learn the concept of local context, it means you are learning and appreciating that things are just done differently. In return, your willingness to adjust and adapt makes you an asset in the global workforce.

Skip to content