Sink or Swim: How to Stay Afloat When Thrown Off the Deep-end of a Foreign Culture

Whether you’re an expat adapting to a foreign country or an international manager in one’s own country working in a multicultural environment, you must ready yourself for integration.

To integrate means to “bring together and become part of a whole.”

As a foreign or international manager, it’s your duty to bring your team together – to make it a cohesive whole – and you can do this by taking action.

Sink or Swim

Just as you prepare yourself for negotiations, coming up with your objectives and the strategy you might use to achieve them, you must also prepare yourself for integration into a foreign culture.

As with every aspect of meticulously planned business – from putting together engaging presentations that appeal to clients to scheduling your time down to the minute – a cross-cultural business venture requires an extra layer of planning: preparing for the cultural differences and those potential monkey moments that accompany them.

Depending on your organization, you might not even receive cross-cultural skills training prior to departure.

This leaves you two options: take it upon yourself to prepare beforehand or just wing it when you arrive in your host country.

Either way, your host country colleagues and the friends you make will essentially become your “trainers,” while your entire host country – from its local streets, shops, and restaurants to your workplace itself – will be your training venue.

Daily interactions with locals, friends, and colleagues will become hands-on training.

You’ll be thrown in the deep-end and told to sink or swim.

Here’s how you swim.

Learn How to Prepare

In order to successfully swim when thrown off the deep-end, you must eliminate, as much as you possibly can, the culture shock.

This phase is called “Taking Action.”

Taking action involves a conscious effort to adapt smoothly and quickly, avoiding monkey moments in the process.

Being that you’ve already taken the first step of cross-cultural integration – Awareness – you’re already able to reduce cultural monkey moments by following the next steps: Accepting, Adapting, or Adopting.

Accepting, Adapting, and Adopting are generic steps that help you integrate into any culture. 

However, knowing the culture in which you’ll be living, you can take specific action to prepare yourself, for example, by learning the cultural values and norms prior to arrival.

In the next few weeks, this blog will discuss a general methodology to efficiently learn the scope of a new culture.

10 Cultural Universals: Education

What role do educators play in society?

Teaching reading, writing, arithmetic. Sure.

But they teach our children and young adults other things too.

In many ways, educators are charged with teaching our youth about the basic tenets of our culture.

Socialization

We talked a lot about primary socialization in earlier blog posts.

According to sociologyguide, education has both tangible and intangible results. Specific skills are learned, but so is knowledge, judgement and wisdom.

“Education has as one of its fundamental goals the imparting of culture from generation to generation. Culture is a growing whole. There can be no break in the continuity of culture.” – sociologyguide

Education begins at home and continues through schooling. It is here and there that a culture’s heritage is passed on through social institutions, and it’s transmitted this was through each and every society, making it one of the 10 Cultural Universals.

Education is delivered through many forms:

  • Curriculum
  • Relationships (teacher-student, etc.)
  • Extra-curricular activities
  • Communication of values and skills – i.e., discipline, teamwork, cooperation, respect, duty, etc.

These taught skills, both tangible and intangible, are designed to enable children to understand their culture and to help them integrate into the world.

Cultural Education Clash

Different cultures see the world differently. This isn’t in error. It’s how culture is perpetuated.

Matthew Lynch, Ed.D., talks about that in his article, “Examining the Impact of Culture on Academic Performance.” He writes:

“A person’s culture and upbringing has a profound effect on how they see the world and how they process information.”

Lynch describes Richard Nisbett’s studies on the difference between Eastern and Western thought.

In The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently, Nisbett found that the Chinese and Japanese view the world in a holistic way, seeing objects with respect to their relationship with other objects, while Americans view the world in distinct parts or classes of objects, defined by rules.

In this way, learning, in and of itself, also differs across cultures. There are a number of theories as to why and how, some of which are discussed in Lynch’s article. But the one we’ll outline here is the cultural difference theory.

The Cultural Difference Theory

This theory suggests that children growing up in different cultures likely learn in different ways.

You might take our example from Primary Socialization V: Conflict Resolution.

The conflict between Ahmed, Khalid, and Ann illustrates that learning and education in some areas of the world is a communal effort, while in other areas, study is independently geared and self-driven.

This is why, when working in a cross-cultural environment, one must always be aware of different traditions of learning and approaches to education.

If you’re aware of how individuals in a culture have been taught to learn, you will be better able to teach; to work with and/or manage them successfully.

Step 5 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Taking Action by Learning & Sharing

Whether you’re an expat in a foreign country or working with expats in your own, integration requires action.

Successfully managing or working across cultures necessitates planning; not just business planning, but planning for how to react to those all-too-painful monkey moments.

When relocating abroad, your company will likely provide some type of pre-departure cross-cultural skills training. Such guidance can help significantly in adjusting to a new culture. However, cross-cultural training is not guaranteed, nor is it guaranteed to be effective.

Instead, most successful managers take cross-cultural integration into their own hands, navigating the steps of Awareness, Accepting, Adapting, Adopting, and Taking Action, with the last step being the most hands-on.

Taking action involves two action-packed tasks: Learning and Sharing.

We’ll discuss both briefly in this post and cover them in more detail over the next several weeks.

Learning

When you look at all the intricate details of a culture, you might grow overwhelmed with just how much there is to learn. The task seems nearly impossible and seeing it as such can be a setback to integration.

Instead, break down learning into the following three steps so that it seems a little less daunting:

  • Learn Language – Communication is essential to integration, so language learning should be high on your to-do list.
  • Learn Religion – Learning about religion will help you better understand the values and norms of a culture.
  • Learn History – The same goes for learning a country’s history. Some knowledge of your host country’s past will help place some of the local’s traditions and habits in historical context.

Sharing

You shouldn’t try and integrate on your own; in fact, doing so is counterintuitive. The whole point of integrating into a foreign culture is to make connections. That’s where sharing comes in!

  • Seeking Friends – Making friends with the locals will not only take some of the stress off your initial culture shock, but it will also aid in cross-cultural understanding.
  • Sharing Food – Sharing in each other’s food culture is a great way to ease into deeper-rooted cultural differences.
  • Looking for your Zookeeper – Every monkey needs a zookeeper. The best zookeeper is one who may know enough about your culture to help you integrate into their own. They will be your veritable tour guide in this foreign land, as it is their home.

Tune in over the next several weeks, as we’ll discuss learning and sharing in more detail and offer advice on how best to approach each.