Successful Expat Assignments- The Importance of Cultural Awareness

One of the surprising things about expats moving abroad, is that they often receive very limited training about cultural differences. The working expat and especially his or her family are often left to their own devices in figuring out how to navigate life in a new country.

Even if, like me, you have visited a country before as a tourist, you will find that living abroad is a whole different ballgame. The continuous daily interaction with another culture (or more than 1) can be enriching AND frustrating. It will also confront you with your own cultural biases.

The costs of cultural misunderstandings are not to be dismissed. This is not just about tension in a team, but about failed projects, companies pulling out of a country at great costs and assignments ending early.


Joining NetExpat*

Recently, I have joined NetExpat as a cross-cultural consultant for Brunei. I’m very excited about this, as NetExpat provides a.o. cultural training for mobile employees and their relocating partners. It is is a global leading provider in assessment, training and coaching for this group.

As part of their onboarding process, I reviewed theories about intercultural differences and I was fascinated again with the insights that come from looking at a culture from different angles.

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Different cultural dimensions

These different angles are not about passing your business card to someone with both hands, or those other little tips you read about in guides to surviving in your new country. They are on a deeper layer.

There are many different dimensions identified how you can compare cultures. How a culture deals with power distance or whether it is individualistic or favours collectivism (Hofstede) makes a big difference for example. And how are respect and social status accorded to people (Trompenaars)?

It is always important to remember that when you compare a culture with your own, or when you compare yourself to your own or another culture, that is what it is-

a comparison.

There are no absolutes, and within countries and between individuals there will always be differences. You can never assume that just because someone is American/Chinese/Nigerian, they will behave in certain ways.

However, expanding your knowledge on cultural differences may provide surprising insights and lessen misunderstandings.

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German culture versus Chinese culture

I will never forget how I had to laugh about the marvellous drawings by Yang Liu comparing German and Chinese culture. In these drawings, a German boss is represented as being almost at the same level as his/her subordinates. The Chinese boss is represented as much higher in the hierarchy. Why did I laugh? Because in The Netherlands we view Germans as much more hierarchical and formal than Dutch bosses.

It was so surprising to see them pictured in a way that I would consider representing the Dutch rather than the Germans.


3 Tips to Enhance Your Cultural Awareness

  • Increase Self Awareness

Are you aware of your own cultural biases? We might not consider ourselves a “typical” American, French, Brazilian, Nigerian or Dutch person, chances are we are still deeply influences by our home culture.

Mini Exercise: Spend 10 minutes reading information about your own culture. What do you recognise?

If your company has an agreement with NetExpat, you may also be able to take the excellent ExpAdviser tool. This self-assessment will let you compare your scores on important cultural and personal traits to your host country and identify potential challenges for your expat assignment.


  • Increase Other Awareness

Are you aware of other’s possible biases? Of your boss and co-workers, your neighbour or your helper? What situations baffle or irritate you? How do you normally react? What is the impact?

Mini Exercise: Think of 1 or 2 situations that have puzzled, frustrated or surprised you in your host country. Now take a few moments to read about the culture of your host country (or the nationality of the person involved if another). What insights do you get?


  • Asian Cultural Concepts

If you are in Asia, chances are the country where you are located highly values Harmony, Collectivism, gaining and losing “Face.”

Mini Exercise: Look up information about these concepts. What is the impact of these concepts at work and in private? How do you see these concepts? Do you like them, hate them? What is the impact of your views on your behaviour and your communication towards Asians? How does that influence your work?


What are your cultural insights after these exercises?

–> You may also be interested in this article about cross cultural communication 


*Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely my own and do not in any way represent the views of NetExpat.

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