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How to Adapt to Differences in Culture when Working Abroad

Curiosity is one of the most wonderful traits we humans share, and it lets us experience the world from wildly different perspectives on a daily basis. It’s what gets us to try new, exotic foods, to say hi to someone new, to talk to a parrot, to book a ticket to unfamiliar places, to take on new challenges we might not be so equipped to tackle. This inquisitive spirit of yours might take you on an adventure even when it comes to your career path. More people are moving to China and other Asian regions to teach English, and more people are rushing to Australia to help save their endangered animal species. 

As rewarding and beautiful as it can be to embrace a new calling (or an old one) in a new country, this courage to travel the globe while doing what we love comes with its own challenges, ones that have nothing to do with your expertise or passion for your job. It takes time to adapt to a completely different cultural environment, and when you do decide it’s time to relocate with your career, here are a few ways to embrace the new culture you’re about to join, and feel more at home.

Education is the heart of the matter

An open mind is the key ingredient in such crossroads in your life, not just for your career and professional development, but for you as an evolving, constantly developing human being. Although you’ll be going to a new country to share your knowledge and expertise and hopefully apply it in situations when everyone around you can benefit from your contribution, you also need to be prepared to learn and adapt, well before you board the plane. The sooner you start learning about the culture you’ll live in, the easier it will be for you to adjust.

Luckily, the online world is brimming with information, and you can always look for credible sources to check for cultural norms and preferences of any given society you’ll be visiting. For example, in this article by the USA Today, you can learn about la siesta, a tradition in Spain that inspires the locals to create a balance in their days, which is now still prevalent in smaller towns and villages. So, when you see the local shops closed until later in the afternoon – you’ll know why! 

Find a like-minded community

You’re certainly not the first one to join a new culture in the working capacity, and you’ll be happy to learn that there are so many ways you can feel welcome and embraced in any society out there. In addition to arming yourself with knowledge of the local way of life, one useful way to settle in would be to learn from people who have been in your shoes and adapt their way. For instance, keeping an eye on locally (and globally) relevant news platforms such as Week in China can help you understand the intricacies of the country’s economy, people, and culture. 

It also serves as a useful way to learn how you can adapt on the go. You’ll encounter the very same problems other expats have faced, such as the seemingly insurmountable language barrier. Stay in the loop long enough and you’ll learn there’s a way to translate the most prominent e-commerce stores from Chinese to make your everyday shopping much easier. Your presence, and the presence of others like you, shapes the local communities to a great extent. You can benefit so much from learning from others like you via reputable platforms and groups you can join.

Mingle with the locals 

Spending time and learning from people who have already experienced the same struggles of adapting to the cultural differences is indeed helpful. Imagine going a step further and letting yourself spend time with local people, learning directly from them, and seeing just how much of all that knowledge you’ve gathered can be useful in real life. Do you know when to take your shoes off in Japan, or how many times you should bow to someone?

It takes so much more than memorizing facts to absorb the finesse of a society. When you come from a different cultural background, so many of these things might not come as naturally to you at first. Practice does make perfect, and you should skip the training wheels and let the locals teach you first-hand as to what expectations you should meet.  

Don’t be afraid to ask for help 

Being different should not be equated with being wrong in your mind. So yes, living in a new country means making mistakes and occasional cultural blunders will actually be helpful in letting you abandon all assumptions or judgment towards your new country of residence. In fact, since you have been given the opportunity to work and build a career there, chances are they like and enjoy your presence. So why not ask for help when you find yourself stuck?

Talk to your host, your new boss and colleagues, and talk to other expats who have lived in the country for a while now. All of them can be invaluable in helping you find your feet as you adjust to this new life of yours and slowly overcome your fears one lesson at a time.

Our culture is a part of our identity. As such, it shapes our views and expectations, so you might find yourself surprised when you’re amidst people who have developed an entirely different way of life. Embrace the unknown! Shed your presumptions, and make way for lifelong learning that will be rewarding for your career as well as your personal growth and evolution.

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