Is Culture Shock Ruining Your Chances Overseas?

Traveling to a foreign country, living there, meeting new people, and facing success or failure abroad can trigger fear in all of us. To some, it’s a mild fear of the unknown. To others, it can be a stress-inducing, unpleasant experience. It’s rooted deep in our psyche: Differences in beliefs, race, color, religion, culture, and even language have led to innumerable acts of war and violence throughout human history. Believing that globalism has put it all behind us is naive at best. Those that think trivially of the differences between cultures, and the deep-rooted permanence of those differences, should think again.

Experiencing Culture Shock In The U.S.

Most willing expatriates will approach the prospect of an International sojourn with trepidation. Fortunately for most such feelings are usually manageable. Yet, intercultural issues absolutely cause stress. The stress of travel, of the unknown, being away from home and family, of making a mistake that leads to failure. Stress causes anxiety, and as humans we react to anxiety in much the same way we react to fear.

This exact situation happened to Venkat, after relocating his family to the United States. Venkat had been working for his employer a few years when he was invited to move to the U.S. office. It was an excellent opportunity and one that Venkat embraced wholeheartedly.

But, soon after arrival, Venkat started to have difficulty. Being from India, he was accustomed to a strong social network at work and home. Both he and his wife felt cut out of society because Americans just don’t connect like Indians do. Neighbors typically don’t become close friends, and co-workers rarely create strong after-work bonds. Venkat was unprepared for this. He felt excluded when his social invitations to neighbors and coworkers weren’t enthusiastically reciprocated. Soon, he came to feel the promises of “getting together after work” where well-meaning but insincere pleasantries — even the few times his efforts were successful the get together was stiff, brief, and conversation revolved around work.

Eventually, Venkat came to realize that Americans only get together rarely after work and when they do, it’s more an obligation than genuine camaraderie. He and his wife felt isolated, and decided to end their stay in America after about a year. The socially distant culture of America was never something they could get used to.

Understanding Culture Shock

Misunderstandings, embarrassments, and misinterpretations occur today, on a regular basis, between tourists and professionals alike. The accelerating pace of technology is speeding up communication — it’s becoming cheap and nearly ubiquitous. Where we relied on couriers that would take months to deliver a message, now we connect with people globally in seconds. The expanding pace of International business adds to the rapidly expanding, global reach of companies — and as it does, so our need to interact across cultures increases with it.

When a family, or husband and wife, are sent abroad, it’s often the partner who stays at home who experiences the worst culture shock. The professional in the family is embroiled in work, kept busy with professional obligations. The business network forms a sort of insulation from the cultural impact. This insulating effect can be stronger when an expatriate is positioned as an expert, visiting a foreign culture to lead a team, share important knowledge, or otherwise perform a critical function. At the same time, the one staying at home — possibly looking after children or a household — is not so insulated. There may be no support group to turn to. Learning to get around, picking up the local language, facing contractors or repair personnel, dealing with school officials, and learning local customs is often harder without the support of an eager team of coworkers.

Acculturation Curve

Culture shock is a normal situation. It affects nearly everyone that relocates abroad for any period of time. It may not set in immediately — in fact, early on, an opposite effect of euphoria often masks the anxiety most people experience. People living in foreign environments typically report a transition in their feelings that follow an “acculturation curve,” shown in the above figure and first introduced in Cultures And Organizations.1 Positive and negative feelings are shown on the vertical axis, while time progresses forward from left to right. The initial euphoric phase is typically short; it represents the initial feelings of adventure, seeing new lands, travel, and meeting new people. Culture shock sets in during Phase 2 in the diagram, as the euphoria begins to wear off and the realities of life in a foreign society set in. Acculturation, or adjustment to local culture, takes place during Phase 3. This is when the foreign national begins to acclimatize to differences in culture, learns to adopt and function within local customs, and establishes connections with a new social network. Finally, self-confidence and comfort with the local environment is established. This “stable state” of mind can settle as negative or positive when compared with home, depending on the individual and their circumstances. Those that are lucky enough to experience a relatively more positive stable state (4c) are ideal candidates for long-term repatriation, and quite likely are well suited to cross-cultural business relationships. This is when the visitor has “gone native.” On the other hand, a negative steady state (4a) can mean that the individual never becomes fully acclimatized. Instead they continue to feel out of place, discriminated against, or an outsider.

The feelings instigated by culture shock often lead to feelings of distress, of being out of place, longing for home, helplessness, and in some cases hostility toward the new environment (as pointed out in Managing People Across Cultures).2 Expatriates often experience higher incidence of medical problems soon after relocation, as opposed to later. These illnesses are linked to the mental state brought on by culture shock. Symptoms can be the same as those of mild neuroses, and can extend to skins rashes, appetite loss, depression, sleeplessness, swellings, palpitations, and more.

Getting Used To It

The time period for acculturation varies dramatically. Both temperament and situation factor into acculturation. The most significant common factor seems to be the time period of the foreign visit itself. People on short term assignments, say a few months, have reported experiencing all phases of the acculturation curve in the same short time. On the other hand, people on long term assignments stretching over several years indicate acculturation takes longer, as much as a year or more.

Culture shock can be so severe that assignments may need to be cut short. In extreme cases, anxiety, depression, or homesickness will directly affect work. Such cases can lead to significantly reduced performance, and even inability to function. In at least one situation I’m aware of, a family relocating to Europe experienced long-term problems with social integration. The stay-at-home partner, responsible for raising the couple’s child, developed a strong aversion to leaving the house and continually avoided learning the local language. This left the working partner saddled with most responsibilities for both business and household care, at least when it came to running errands, arranging services, and working with the local school or health care system. The anxiety of the cultural transition became exacerbated, leading to a strain on the couple’s relationship. After several years, there was little improvement. The “steady state” was clearly a negative one. Even though the husband wanted to stay abroad, the couple frequently discussed plans for returning to the United States.

In part two of this article, I’ll discuss how to prepare for and deal with culture shock, from both a management and individual perspective.

1 Cultures and Organizations: Software for the Mind, Geert Hoftstede, Gert Jan Hoftstede, and Michael Minkov, McGraw Hill.
2 Managing People Across Cultures, Fons Trompenaars, Charles Hampden-Turner, Capstone.

The Changing Face of the U.S. Job Market

Official unemployment levels are down, showing fits and starts at improvement. Setting aside arguments about whether these figures are ignorant of the real picture, signs of improvement have taken root. Nevertheless job creation still isn’t what it should be, and the amount of time it takes find a lost job is hovering around a record of 35 weeks — longer in many cases. So, what’s the hold up?

Are we experiencing a jobless recovery, or facing something much more fundamental? Should we be challenging the assumption that job recovery will automatically follow on the heels of economic recession?

Historically job recovery has always followed times of recession. However, if we are facing new, fundamental shifts in the economy, history need not necessarily repeat itself. The changing economic landscape could be forcing the U.S. into a structural change, not a cyclical one.

This article originally appeared in 2011, but has been updated and reposted here as we move to our new system. We hope you find the revised article interesting. We feel that the changes to the U.S. and global economies discussed here are still very relevant, and just beginning to take root.

The Shifting Job Landscape

The influence of the global economy is undeniably bringing about changes that are both new and unanticipated. As information flows around the world instantly, new possibilities open up — particularly in markets that deal with intangible assets, such as intellectual property, market data, and ideas. Technology is combining with the global landscape, forever altering how we do our work, and what the end product of that work looks like. The result is a truly global work force, where our “office mates” could well be halfway around the world, where companies leverage 24-hour work cycles by spreading their staff around the globe, and formerly distant economies are suddenly right next door.

Combined with the effect of a global work force — in fact, fueled by that very force — comes the inevitable realization that the U.S. market is a small part of a much bigger system. Coca-Cola saw its revenue more than triple in Q4 of 2010, bringing in nearly 75% of its revenue from international markets while domestic growth lags at 7% compared with 11% internationally. At the same time, IBM has more workers outside the U.S. than inside it. As international barriers and distance continues to shrink, the U.S. will increasingly find itself a member of a global community — one with nearly 7 billion members, of which less than 5% live inside the country.

The influence of the global economy, technology, and developing globalization trends have combined to create a “megatrend,” a fundamental change in the nature of the job market. With massive numbers of workers available, and markets that dwarf the value of domestic markets, the U.S. must change its perceptions. We have to realize that the manufacturing jobs that have left the country aren’t coming back. Likewise, the global nature of information and intellectual property means we must adapt to a world in which global workforces play a part in domestic economics on a daily basis.

Surviving The Shift

U.S. businesses need to learn new tricks, and U.S. workers need to keep pace. The global economy is not tolerant of insular economies or attitudes. In contrast to shrinking distances, the consumer market is growing faster than ever before. We have to face that realization that companies such as Coca-Cola are seeing a world where domestic markets matter less than global ones.

To survive in this new landscape, the U.S. will need to strengthen its global position. This means a greater focus on education, not only to strengthen our domestic work forces’ position in the new economy, but to re-establish the U.S. as the preeminent source of higher education. Many countries have long regarded the U.S. as the best possible place to send their best and brightest for education, but that distinction has slipped in the past decade or two.

Having a strong education program won’t, by itself, solve our long-term concerns. As a whole, the U.S. needs to integrate into a global culture that represents this newly emerging market. Formerly, the U.S. has been notoriously insular. We are one of very few countries in the world where the educated speak only one language. Our appreciation for the arts, culture, and mannerisms of foreign people is poor, at best. As a people, U.S. citizens pay precious little attention to world politics. The effect is like that of a child raised without adequate social interaction. We don’t know how to play with the rest of the world, and are often perceived as ignorant of social and economic events. In the landscape of this shifting economy, we need to develop a better understanding for who our neighbors are, and fast.

This means a more educated professional work force, and business services that are more attuned to the needs and wants of a global people. Executives of the future will be expected to converse with global partners, understand the subtle nuances of international communication, and readily connect with counterparts in foreign countries. Americans without international skill sets and only one language to rely on will be left behind.

The Good News

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; Moody’s Analytics, 37.6% of forecast shares of newly created jobs in 2012 will demand a Bacholor’s degree or higher, up from less than 8% in 2010. Moody’s indicates that in 2011 the better educated will control 60.1% of all new jobs, but by 2015, the projection rises to 66.4% even after construction bounces back. According to Time (Where The Jobs Are, January 17, 2011), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s career services office reports that 7% more interviews were scheduled by companies on campus this past fall than the year before, a fact that seems to support Moody’s projections.

Time also reports that Gautam Godhwana, CEO of SimplyHired, is seeing dramatic signs of job market improvement. “Before the downturn happened, we had 5 million job openings. This dropped to 2.1 million job openings in the first months of 2009, and lo and behold, in the second half of 2009 the bottom fell out of the economy.” But he notes that the reverse is now happening, “In the last six months we’re back to 5 million jobs in our database. So there are some reasons to be optimistic.”

All of this seems to support the idea that the U.S. is beginning to perceive the need for change. The education market and professional services will do well in this climate. According to Moody’s, technology is leading the way. The strongest growth (defined by more hires combined with more job openings) will be in professional and business services, specifically, the technology sector. Network systems and data analysts, and professionals suited to global IT projects, are among the fastest growing sector after biomedical engineers. Bill Saporito, Time Magazine, writes:

And [the recovery] will favor companies that sell abroad rather than those that depend solely on domestic demand. “Any industry that is very focused on exports will do well,” says Nariman Behravesh, [chief economist for IHS Global Insight]. “Agriculture, aircraft, high tech.” He would include education in that segment, since so many foreign countries send their best and brightest here.

Education, professional services, and technology are the gateway into the new global economy. It will take time for the shift to take root, likely years before we find out if the U.S. can successfully discard outmoded ideas about where the jobs are. Until then, we still have record levels of unemployment to deal with, and a work force that needs to adapt to change.

But the U.S. still has a stable economy that is the world’s largest. It can handle short term unemployment and restructuring, provided that it stops treating the current change as temporary. Many jobs in sectors such as manufacturing and even technology are gone forever. The next step is to assess the new landscape and begin to change accordingly. We need to refocus our sights on superb education and technological leadership, where the U.S. was once undisputed leader. Likewise, cutting-edge infrastructure will be necessary to deliver on the promise of being a world leader once again. The U.S. has to change its perceptions — and until we do, we’ll keep playing catch-up.

How Is Business Culture Affecting Your Business?

A good friend of mine, Chris, told me this fantastic story about his first encounter with his parents-in-law — a story that really drives home the importance of business culture. But if the story is going to have any impact, you’ve got to know Chris a little better.

A Man Cooking In Turkey

Chris is a really smart, well-travelled guy. He’s also pretty straightforward and humble — here’s an example: He was giving me a tour of the new business incubator he was setting up and casually mentioned that he wanted to bring “his bear” in to the break room as part of the decor. I let it pass, not really giving it a second thought. It was some time later that I found out that Chris’ “bear” was in fact a stuffed, formerly live bear that he had personally hunted, killed, skinned, and subsequently ate. It was only then that I found out that bear meat is, apparently, the most delicious meat of all (I have never tried it myself).

Chris is a pretty interesting guy to be around, but not just because of the stories he tells. He’s got a lot of experiences and likes to share them in every way possible. His background was originally in technology, and later he turned this into a strong business sense. And, for this story to make sense, you have to know he also went to culinary school and is an accomplished chef.

So, back to Chris’ story about meeting his new parents-in-law.

Chris met his Middle Eastern wife in the United States, where they also got married. It was a few years into the marriage before an opportunity arose to visit Turkey, where his wife originated. Naturally, Chris and his wife planned to stay with family — doing anything else would have been an unthinkable affront.

After staying with his in-laws for a few days — and, all the while enjoying some incredible home cooked food — Chris wanted to do something nice in return for being welcomed into the family so openly. He had seen how the food was prepared, and with his background he had already learned how to prepare it (partly from training and partly from watching his mother-in-law cook). So, one day he went out to the local market, bought all of the groceries, spices, and meats needed to make a wonderful Turkish meal, and brought it home. Then, he set out to cook a delicious meal for the family, intending to surprise them with his cooking (and hard work) when everyone returned home.

Much to Chris’ surprise, his extended family was absolutely horrified by what he had done. None of the family would touch even a tiny morsel of the dinner he had prepared — in fact, his mother-in-law would not even enter the kitchen. When Chris tried to prepare a plate of food, all of the women left the room! They refused to even sit where they would see him eat the food!

Needless to say, it was quite a shock and disappointment.

GERMANY. Baden-Baden. June 16, 2012, the Feast of the urban area. Women cook traditional Turkish food.
GERMANY. Baden-Baden. June 16, 2012, the Feast of the urban area. Women cook traditional Turkish food.

His wife explained to him, quite simply, telling Chris, “You can’t do that here. You’re a man, in my family’s house, you can’t cook or even help in the kitchen! I know your food is delicious, but nobody will touch it. I will — I’m going to go hide behind the door in my room and eat it because I know it’ll be wonderful, but I can’t let anyone see me eat it!”

Chris had unwittingly fallen victim to culture — to a “social cultural preference.” He had done something taboo in the local culture. There was nothing Chris could do to change the situation. The local culture that dated back thousands of years was set in stone, and was not going to change for Chris’ sake.

Before going on, let me point out that Turkey is a country with great diversity. With over 70 million citizens, it’s bound to be that way! As with many countries, the larger cities tend to be more metropolitan and modern, while towns and villages may be a bit more traditional or old fashioned. Chris’ story is not, of course, indicative of every family culture in Turkey.

Culture, or Business Culture?

Just as every country and every region and every people have social cultural preferences, the corporate world has business cultural preferences. These preferences deal with things like how we communicate, how a subordinate demonstrates respect for a superior, even the way we manage time. These business cultural preferences are deeply ingrained. They can’t be taught, trained, or educated away — it’s not about knowledge, it’s about knowing how to act properly in a particular social environment. Culture is something we start to pick up as a child, and that includes the culture of business in our country.

Chris’ story applies to the business world just as much as the family environment. If you are doing business internationally, in any way, you’ll find this blog interesting. A lot of the content here comes from my book, Building Successful Multinational Business Relationships. My intention in writing the book is to create an awareness of business cultural preferences within your own environment. The most effective way to deal with a foreign culture is to understand our own preferences, and to recognize different preferences as we discover them in other people and other environments. This sensitivity allows us to identify how culture varies, how our preferences don’t match someone else’s preferences. With the right awareness, we can then take action to learn and adapt our behavior, and even our environment.

What Is Culture Really?

So, what is culture, really? The fact is, from our own perspective when talking about our own culture, it won’t sound like “culture” at all. It’s just the way things are.

If you’re American, you’ll believe that everyone has a right to free speech, and believe that anything else is a human rights violation. You’ll know that American football is a national past time of incredible proportion (and you may be surprised that the rest of the world doesn’t really care about it much). You’ll enjoy two or three weeks of vacation each year (if you’re lucky). You will get married for love and think the idea of an arranged marriage is outlandish. You would find it scandalous to have to bribe a government official, and would likely report it as a crime. While you don’t look forward to it, you do rely on a just and reasonably efficient court system. If you are late to an appointment you’ll mutter an excuse if you’re five minutes late, apologize profusely if you’re ten minutes late, and being an hour late would be unthinkable (and probably means you lost the job). When talking with someone you get uncomfortable if they get closer than two feet. After college you rarely go to someone else’s home, and doing so is an invitation-only event (especially if a meal is involved). You think that some foreigners don’t say what they mean, which is just exasperating. You’ll probably hate the idea of using the train system (unless you are lucky enough to live in one of the few cities that has a good one). You find a two-party political system natural. You expect the politicians of both parties to be responsive to business, strong on defense, and concerned with the middle class. You find parliamentary systems (such as Italy’s) inefficient and a little bit comic.

But an American in Turkey can be completely out of place, as we learned from Chris’ visit to his parents-in-law. If you’re Turkish, you know about the concept of freedom of speech but you probably wouldn’t dare talk about it too much. If you’re male, you are likely a futbol fanatic and you support one of the major Turkish teams (and you think it’s silly to use a word like “soccer”). You are blissfully unaware that you have more official and not-so-official vacations than any country in Europe. You expect to marry for love; but the marriage of your parents was very likely arranged by their families (arranged marriage does still take place, particularly in more rural areas). You won’t seriously expect to transact business, or deal with officials, without paying bribes. You dread the court system and know that if you had problems with a customer, landlord, or supplier, taking them to court would be an ordeal that could take months or years. If you are late for an appointment, you’ll mutter an excuse after 30 minutes, and an hour late is still tolerable. You can’t feel comfortable in a conversation if the other person is more than a foot away from you. If a guest drops by, you will gladly serve them tea. When you are negotiating, it’s natural to play convoluted games to get what you want — and in social situations, it’s improper to be too direct. You don’t understand how Americans can get by with a two party system, although “Socialist,” “democratic,” “nationalist,” “republican,” “populist,” “leftist,” and “rightist,” are just vague words for doing approximately the same thing. You think that the situation of the country is hopeless, that none of the countries problems will ever be solved.

This is a small sampling of “culture” at a very high level. This blog delves into business culture, a very specific area that has to do with how people interact and behave in a business context. We’ll examine five of the core business cultural preferences, and hopefully along the way learn how our own culture varies from “their” culture. Understanding this difference is crucial to anyone doing business internationally.

I believe strongly in the power of stories, and so throughout this blog (and my book) you’ll find both informative articles as well as stories. I’ve tried to find stories that express the perspective of a particular culture as it relates to a particular article — and whenever possible, I’ve presented two stories: One from a Western perspective and one from an Eastern perspective. I’ve found it most effective to “walk a mile in the other person’s shoes,” a saying that has been traced back to the Cherokee tribe of Native Americans. Put another way: If two people of the same culture share their experiences abroad, they will likely reinforce each other’s point of view. On the other hand, if two people from different cultures share their experiences, it can be quite enlightening.

I hope you will find both the stories, and the specific knowledge of business cultural preferences, enlightening.