Expat life and cultural shock…

it is all about expectations…

I asked one of my expat fellows to tell me about his own experience of expatriation and since I found it interesting for many of us, I thought I’d share with you his post. Don’t hesitate to fire back your comments or your thoughts by email after reading it. I’d love to know if you can relate or not and what is your story…

[notice]In Switzerland, when a new expatriate encounters his or her first major cultural shock, the English speaking expat community uses a coded phrase on forums “welcome, you have been Switzerlanded“.[/notice]

Whether you are a member of an expat forum, are contemplating a move abroad or have already made the move, you may already be familiar with what is best described as a shock: cultural shock, financial shock, the shock of your life…. It is necessary to understand that it is all about your own expectations, your own set of values and what some improperly tag as your own culture. These 3 factors influence your adaptability. Some people may falsely interpret the shock as a racial issue.

For me, the “nomadic” lifestyle started at the young age of 15 when I went on holiday to a German family near Mainz. By age 22, I was already away in Mogadishu, Somalia for 2 years. It’s been so ever since…

I have worked both for the private sector, the diplomatic service and International organisations. In that capacity I lived or travelled to about fifty countries on 4 main continents. Based on my experience, here are 3 fundamental steps to guarantee successful expatriation:

  1. The essential key factor of success is …. Language.

Before settling down in Mogadishu, I already spoke fluent Italian and I had undergone a 3 week crash program in Arabic. The latter eventually, did not help me at all because Somali is a Kouchitic language and not a Semitic one. But because Somalia was an ex-Italian colony and many in the older generation spoke Italian, which came in handy. I did not speak nor read English and soon realised that this language was badly needed. I started taking English lessons online. As a matter of fact, I always tried to learn local languages during my postings: Somali in Somalia, Swahili in Kenya, Greek in Greece and so on. It eases the integration process a lot. It is essential and is strongly recommended to any expat. Granted, it takes times, but it is an added value number # 1.

Another important point to remember is “do not assume”. Assumption is like expectation; you are disappointed when it doesn’t come as expected. On one of my postings to an English speaking country, I assumed everyone spoke English and tried to converse in the Queen’s English (or something I believed to be close to that) in a local market. Nobody understood me. It was only when I realised that only Pidgin English was spoken, that we eventually had a good laugh.

  1. The second aspect is about your expectations.

If you fancy a nice cup of coffee every morning on your way to work or if bathing with cold water in the dark early morning puts you off, then, I would strongly suggest that you do not try expatriation. In the Middle East for example local breakfast is made of Foul (fava beans stew), pitta bread, olives, hot tea with lots of sugar and sometimes fermented milk. If your expectations are high in terms of habits and routines, then you may find it difficult to adapt.

My first local breakfast during my first day of expatriation was made of fried camel liver served with sour goat milk. Most of my European colleagues try to reproduce the homeland habits in the host country thereby refusing to adapt to local culture: keep the good old habit of melty French cheese and wines, European designer clothes or shoes. Wasting time to source French newspapers or magazines in an English or Portuguese speaking country… I have always made the choice to keep expectations low but standards high and this has kept surprises at bay.

  1. Finally it is merely about your expectations at work.

Being able to change and learn is the key. This does not need you to lower your working standards or your performance. Making sure work deliveries or projects are completed in due time and due process might be extremely challenging in some parts of the world. Blaming the new working culture is the common attitude of expats. How many times have I heard expats complain that local work force was either (pick your choice) lazy, easily distracted, uneducated, low in skills, underperforming, unable to produce steady efforts, you name it….. It shows inability of manager and leaders to cope, engineer changes, lack of creativity (it has always be done like this, and will not be changed) and the incapacity to adapt. On the contrary, you have the cases of expats who immediately endorse and adopt the new expat culture and become more local than the locals themselves. This over zealous attitude is uncalled for. It is absolutely not necessary.

Jean Jacques Morgenrot

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