If there’s a single piece of advice for prospective expats, it’s this: get ready for the unexpected.
Although assignees will spend hours planning their relocation (and our comprehensive checklist is a good place to start), you never really know what’s going to happen while you’re there. Which is why you need to be ready for anything.
One thing you can be sure of? No two-week holiday – however authentic – can prepare you for working in another country. That would be like saying babysitting a few times prepares you for parenthood. The cultural differences you will face exist on 3 levels.
1. The impact of your surroundings
First and foremost, you will be in a different part of the world. This new geography will have a number of real-world effects on your life as an expat:
- Climate – it may well be hotter, colder, windier or rainier than you’re used to. Or even all of them at once – looking at you San Francisco. You can easily find the annual averages online. Dress accordingly and be prepared – expats going to Moscow, in particular!
- Travel – being in a different part of the world brings all kinds of new and exciting travel opportunities. If you’re moving to Europe for the first time, we advise you to visit more than your host country while you’re there. Conversely, if you are going to Australia, be aware that going anywhere else for a while could be arduous and expensive.
- Nature – don’t be too pre-occupied by your work that you miss the wonderful world around you. Whether it’s the beautiful landscapes and sunsets, or unusual animals, birds, and insects: revel in the strange splendor of your new habitat.
2. Relevant cultural components for expats
More than the location itself, you will find you are different to the people surrounding you. They have spent thousands of years building their way of life, so it’s not suddenly going to change once you arrive. Welcome to avoiding culture shock 101.
- Bureaucracy & laws – there is always red tape involved with living and working in a new country, and there will be strange new laws to learn (Singapore is a fascinating example). For many expats, the legal and administrative side is something the Global Mobility departments handles. If not, a FAIM-certified relocation company will know and understand local rules, and will be more than willing to do more than just ship boxes. If you’re in trouble, you can count on your nation’s embassy or consulate for certain types of support.
- Money & tax – you may well need to get used to a different currency, but bear in mind the often-complex issues involving tax and personal finances.
- Religion – the belief systems in place shape the culture and way of life. From the expat perspective, this often simply adds some couleur locale – but be aware that it can also cause very different attitudes. What is culturally normal in one country may be perceived as gender bias, racism or homophobia in others.
- Holidays & customs – often driven by national history, these vary all over the world, and can cause chaos on the roads and in the airports as everyone goes home simultaneously. If you don’t want to get caught out by an unexpected day of celebration to commemorate the former president’s birthday, check out a few important dates here.
- Food – from the mouth-watering to the frankly intimidating. Pickled herrings and pigs’ ears, fried locusts and crispy tarantulas. It’s all out there waiting to be tasted. Enjoy.
- Language – although you may well find English spoken widely, it’s polite to learn a little of the local language – not to mention enriching. Ensuring smooth cross-cultural communication is also an excellent way to avoid culture shock.
- Family life – accommodation, schooling, commuting and many other mundane family activities will all be a new and strange experience. Get the family ready for life abroad with a few tips.
A changed (self-)perception
This one that takes many expats by surprise – but it could be the most important of all. The wide-eyed idealist that sets out is not the same as the worldly-wise traveler who returns: you (and your family) will all have been shaped by the experience.
The plus side? Your career prospects may have been enhanced. If your assignment was a successful one, your services may well be in demand again. But the downside is that your expectations may also have changed, and are no longer aligned with your employers, leading to an unhappy repatriation when you get back to your former workplace.
In the same way that many expats find it hard to fit back into their previous professional role, it may also be hard to re-integrate socially into a world where you have become a stranger.
Are you fully prepared?
If you can’t definitively say ‘yes’, we advise you to follow a thorough cross-cultural awareness training session by a dedicated expert. FAIM Affiliates are on hand to arrange cultural awareness training sessions near you.