Been There Before? Why Even Seasoned Expats Need Cross-Cultural Training
Expats with prior travel to their host countries are quite common today, with many international assignees also having extended business travel experiences before beginning an international assignment. An expat might say, “I’ve travelled many times to this destination and feel confident I understand the culture, so I don’t think cross-cultural training will be valuable.” This may be true to some extent, but the gap between working longer-term in a country, and simply travelling there personally or for periodic business, is wide!
The Rationale of the Seasoned Traveler
If you have ever travelled internationally, you can probably remember an experience connecting with a local culture. Perhaps you noticed that the people seemed reserved, or maybe just the opposite. While on a Turkish tour in 1993, I discovered that men often greet each other with a kiss on the check and that hospitality is paramount to the Turks. I also witnessed the struggle between secular modern Turkey and Islamic traditions.
After making a second trip to Turkey two years later I felt like I could easily assume to have the background knowledge to live and work there successfully. But how prepared would I really be for the challenges of daily life and professional customs in Turkey based on two short trips? A deeper dive into Turkish culture is critical to succeeding in their environment. During my visits, I never experienced the nuances of facilitating a meeting or managing a team of Turkish nationals. Extended business travel rarely offers expats enough time to understand cultural nuances at a deeper level, and even familiarity through family ties does not guarantee success in the host culture.
The Challenges Facing Even the Most Seasoned Traveler
After visiting Peru for five weeks in 1994, I felt confident I could navigate Peruvian professional life. After all, I had family there. In the fall of 1995, I returned to Lima for work, living briefly with relatives. My Spanish had improved since my 1994 visit, but I had no exposure to managing the potential challenges of working in Peru. It took me months to achieve the level of cultural competency that a cross-cultural training program would have accomplished in hours.
How was I to know that hierarchy is important in Peruvian companies, and that people often communicate in circles before getting to the point? Also, without office experience in Peru, I would not have learned that expressing strong emotions at work is nothing unusual or inappropriate. I experienced this over time, and saw distinctive patterns, but by then, it had taken me far too long to become comfortable and proficient.
Making the Case for Training the Seasoned Traveler
One advantage enjoyed by seasoned expats is their prior experience with a host culture. They often sense already how they will fit within the host cultural context. This individual may know what questions to ask the cultural trainer, which can streamline the training and focus the discussion. This is in contrast to those who simply “don’t know what they don’t know.” Expats can mention to their trainers things like, “I noticed when visiting country X, nationals seem likely to do Y in certain situations.”
Three Things to Consider When Sending Seasoned Expats on Assignment
When working with seasoned expats who may not recognize the benefits of cross-cultural training, there are various approaches a relocation professional can take to encourage their full participation in a program, and to ensure a rewarding and successful experience:
- Ask the expat how much time s/he has spent traveling/working in the host country and what s/he has noticed about the culture.
- Encourage the expat to consider her/his curiosities about the host culture and explain that the program could not only address these, but uncover new areas of interest as well.
- Highlight that their cross-cultural training program will be customized to fit their individual needs and schedules, and facilitate a deeper understanding of the host culture, which will be critical to their assignment’s success.