An American in ... ?
Diane McGreal still remembers getting a binder on Malaysia when her husband transferred there for work. It included tips on keeping snakes out of your house. “You know how you keep the snakes out of your house?” she says, laughing. “You keep the rat population down.” Apparently the snakes like to eat them.
No longer is the American dream bounded by the borders of the United States. We tweet across the globe instantaneously, we chat across hemispheres in real time. So it’s only natural that many of us envision a life on foreign soil.
Working abroad is now an expectation for people entering the workforce, explains McGreal, director of global leadership training at Berlitz, a global workforce development company. And the list of countries where U.S. companies are sending workers keeps growing — China, India, Columbia, Russia and South Africa are a few of the up-and-coming countries where more U.S. businesses are setting up shop.
Ready to go? Here’s how you can make your life abroad a dream come true (even with snakes).
1. Take advantage of company training programs
About three-quarters of all companies with foreign offices offer some kind of cultural training (advice on snakes, say), but only 25 percent require employees to actually take it, McGreal says.
“There was a time when England had the most failed assignments” she explains, noting that since people assumed it would be easy to live there thanks to the common language, they didn’t bother with the available training programs.
2. Get your family ready to go
“Family preparation is the No. 1 reason for failed assignments, year after year after year,” McGreal says.
If many employees don’t bother with any offered cross-cultural training, it’s even less likely their families get any help preparing. McGreal might not have been thrilled with the prospect of snake management in Malaysia, but at least she knew what to expect in her adopted home before arriving.
3. Take nothing for granted
Training and preparation will only get you so far. “We tend to make a lot of assumptions about what to expect and what not to expect,” McGreal says. There may be regular access to clean water, but not always. And in some countries, electricity is intermittent, not available 24-7. Having too many assumptions about what your life will be like “will really make the transition much more challenging.”
4. Get advice from people who have gone before
Surely one of your Facebook friends went to India for a summer, or studied abroad in China. “Find people who have lived in a country,” McGreal recommends. Especially if they’re from your social circle — they’ll have more insight into where you might have gaps between expectation and reality.
5. Realize the challenging things can be good
When McGreal arrived in Malaysia, she lived in a small town where her presence was definitely noticed. “For me, it was the first time my skin color represented the minority. It was the first time I stood out,” she says. But that also meant everyone in the town knew she was new, so people there reached out. Standing out in the crowd isn’t always a bad thing.
6. Do some quality navel-gazing
Before you can assimilate into another culture (and remember: It will be you who needs to do the adapting), you have to understand yourself. What do you think about religion, or education? Some behaviors we might consider rude could be perfectly acceptable — or even respectful — in a foreign land. “The most important thing for adapting is understanding yourself and your own culture,” McGreal says. “You have to look inward before you can look outward.”