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Avoid Being a Cross-cultural Casualty

by Allan Hoffman

You've got a spacious house, twice the size of your apartment back home. You've got your airline ticket and your work permit. Your children have spots in the international school. You're ready -- as ready as possible -- for your international assignment, right?

Maybe. But maybe not.

While companies do an admirable job of arranging the logistical details for international employees, they often fall short when it comes to preparing them for the cultural dislocation of living and working outside Canada. Some workers end up joining the ranks of "cross-cultural casualties," as one consulting firm puts it; they leave an assignment prematurely or survive without thriving.

Experts in cross-cultural training, like Frank Alagna, president of Consultants for International Living, say the most significant element of an employee's success in an international job has nothing to do with whether the baggage arrives on time or the other nuts-and-bolts details of the transition; rather, it's the "psychological adjustment" of living abroad, as studies have shown.

Unfortunately, a majority of companies provide no preparation for culture shock, Alagna says. "Just because the information is out there doesn't necessarily mean that companies are going to provide what their employees need," he says. "Consciousness doesn't necessarily mean action."

If your company provides cross-cultural training, consider yourself lucky -- and make the most of it. Training programs vary from half-day sessions to extended counseling for employees and family members. They generally include an assessment of the employee's readiness and expectations for life abroad, education on customs and values, and advice for coping with cultural differences.

"Most individuals don't really understand the degree to which their own values are or are not shared by other individuals around the world," states Peter Burgi, director of research and a trainer for International Orientation Resources. Individual freedom, justice, friendship, what constitutes a good neighbor -- these values may not mean the same thing in Thailand or Saudi Arabia as they do in Canada. "It's the variability of these things that often proves to be the most disorienting factor for an individual settling down in a new location," Burgi contends.

If your company does not provide cross-cultural training, consider constructing a program of your own, with the help of resources and experienced expatriates on the Web. Here is our guide for do-it-yourself cross-cultural training:

  • Explore Expectations: Conduct a personal self-assessment of your expectations, both for your professional and personal life abroad. Write about these expectations in a journal, considering these questions: What elements of life abroad are you eager to experience? What aspects of the transition worry you? What challenges do you expect to face? Which do you expect will be the most difficult to handle (language barrier, making friends, etc.)? What assumptions do you have about your ability to adjust? Several months into your assignment, what do you expect life will be like for you and your family in your new home?

  • Make Contact: Find someone who has had an overseas assignment, ideally in the same country and preferably with your company. (See the list of sites below for message boards for expatriates.) Arrange a phone conversation or meeting with the individual to garner a firsthand account of the expatriate experience. What was most challenging? Most surprising? What were the cultural clashes, both in daily living and in values? What advice would the person offer to help you avoid any pitfalls?

  • Research the Country: Look to the Web for resources specific to your host country. Some sites, like those listed below, provide information to help you learn local customs. A degree of Web sleuthing may be in order to locate those resources most likely to assist you in gaining a deeper sense of a country's values and current affairs. Search for a country via Yahoo! and you will likely find newspapers, guides and lots of homegrown sites (even some by expatriates) with information to share.

These sites should be of help in locating country-specific resources, cross-cultural tips and former or current expatriates:

  • Expat Exchange. A comprehensive source for advice and resources, the site includes forums for asking questions of expatriates.

  • Overseas Digest. A free newsletter, with advice, essays and recommended resources.

  • Virtual Relocation. A Yahoo!-like portal for relocation, with a country guide covering everywhere from Bahrain to Vietnam.

Once you've completed your research, look back to your expectations and assess whether they need revising. Ideally, your research will have given you a better idea of what to expect from life abroad. A study by International Orientation Resources found that one factor is especially crucial when it comes to a successful international assignment -- whether the employee has realistic expectations about the level of cultural differences.

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