Whenever my clients are considering an immediate or future global relocation, we first delve into the cultural ramifications that such a move would entail for their career and personal lives. Having lived five years in Belgium and being well inculcated into a French-speaking culture, I still vividly recall the shock of re-assimilating back into the United States. I had forgotten how different were the pace, cultural energy and behaviors a half-continent away in California. I was a stranger to my homeland.

Frequently, we overlook the impact of a cultural transition upon careers. The results can be a lack of assimilation that derails the career opportunity. Here are some common transition challenges that are often overlooked:

Returning home

We tend to assume the return trip is easier for some reason and it often is not. More dramatic than my situation was the oil executive returning to the USA after 15+ years in Saudi Arabia. His family and wife had lived a cloistered lifestyle in walled compounds and gardens. Though they traveled frequently to Europe on shopping excursions and made return visits to the USA, they were not prepared fully for the cultural re-integration required of them.

We think that all will be the same, but it often changes more that we realize. Commerce, development, trends and styles move on without us in attendance. Coming back can bring a shock of non-recognition, especially if you have been gone a number of years.

We tend to be more demanding on ourselves and our loved ones to jump right into the fray without any transitional adjustment needed. Planning time for re-integration back home is crucial as is expecting changes and differences.

Going to a similar culture

When going to a country where the language is the same, we assume the culture is the same when it is not. I had an executive client relocate to Ireland from the UK for a few years. To his astonishment, there were enough cultural, language and behavioral differences to make adjusting to the new environment a bit more of an effort than first assumed.

This is typical of moving to countries that speak the same language as our native land, only to find a gulf in communications greater than if you were speaking an altogether different language. Talking to Australian, British, or Canadian business colleagues takes some translation as the same words have different meanings across countries. The conversations that ensue often have unexpected and sometimes unpleasant consequences as a result.

Expecting people in another country to understand our language nuances, cultural mannerisms and behaviors just because there is a shared language is erroneous. Buying a dictionary of slang, and reading up in advance on the local fashion and culture is always a good idea.

An Australian client had second thoughts about moving to corporate headquarters in the UK when she realized that she may not be as happy living in a British culture. She had assumed that the company culture was generic and ubiquitous worldwide until she made several visits to corporate headquarters.

Geographic and cultural divides

I have had executives consider a promotion and relocation within a multi-national corporation to the other side of the globe into a completely different language and culture under the assumption that all will go well because they are within the same organization, and it did not. The problem was in making the assumption in the first place which then foreclosed all options to research, explore and prepare for unforeseen eventualities.

One pharmaceutical executive decided to turn down a promotion and relocation to Europe from Asia for that very reason. He concluded that his career trajectory would be accelerated by staying within the region and his cultural comfort zone. We all have our comfort zones and some of us are more adventurous and outgoing than others. Making career choices that support our personal styles includes choosing the right cultural context for yourself as well.

Ensuring success

It’s often hard to predict the success rate in any global career move. Where we may have been delighted to be working in Brazil, the next relocation to Eastern Europe may not be the best fit for us. In any case, making unfounded assumptions along with poor preparation and research will certainly create unneeded roadblocks to our success. The more we are able to quickly and effortlessly make cultural assimilations, the better we optimize our achievements during the time we are there.


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