You’re doing it: Taking a job, a transfer or even a temporary assignment in another country. It’s a huge step, and you’re feeling excited, nervous, curious and a whole swirl of other emotions. You’re preparing the best you can for working abroad, and perhaps your company is even helping you get ready. But some aspects of relocating internationally don’t get talked about enough.
Today we at Fluency Corp want to share some of “why didn’t anybody tell me?” moments that both we and others have had while working abroad. Hopefully, they’ll make your own international relocation a bit easier. (This article can also be helpful for HR professionals and others who manage their company’s international relocations and global mobility. You should come away with plenty of ideas on how to better support your employees who are moving abroad.)
You’re Not as Fluent as You Think
If you’ve studied the language of the country where you’re moving, you might be feeling pretty confident right about now. We don’t get any joy from bursting your bubble, but you might be in for a rude awakening. Why? There’s a big difference between speaking a language in the classroom (or even during a vacation) and having to use it day in and day out to conduct every single activity you engage in at work and in the rest of your life.
If you’ve only encountered a language in a textbook or through software, the real-life spoken version might seem to bear absolutely no resemblance to what you’ve learned. Think about your own native language and all the regionalisms, idioms and slang you use every day. Think about the distinctive accent in the area where you live. And consider how fast daily conversation moves compared with practicing a language in the classroom.
All of that is true of the language spoken in your new country, too. There’ll be slang terms you’ve never heard. The accent won’t sound like the recordings or non-native speaking teachers in your language class. And everyone talks so fast! Situations you used to navigate effortlessly — like a group dinner in a noisy restaurant or a fast-paced meeting at work (or, GASP, the dreaded conference call!) — will suddenly be a lot more challenging because you have to work harder to understand what’s going on around you.
And here’s one more obstacle: As you struggle to understand others, they’re probably having trouble understanding you, too, because you haven’t mastered the local accent.
All of this happened to me when I worked in Mexico. Initially, I found daily life confusing and indecipherable, even though I had years of classroom experience in Spanish and had even studied abroad in Spain. In restaurants, I tried to speak Spanish, but servers couldn’t understand me because of my accent. What helped me was getting lots of conversational Spanish practice with my co-workers. I sat at lunch with them every day, even when I only understood about 30% of the conversation. Just like when we’re children and don’t understand every word, if we keep at it, our brain will eventually put all the puzzle pieces in the right places. Unfortunately, as adults, we want to learn it RIGHT NOW, but language doesn’t work that way. Just sit back, grab your tupperware container for lunch, and let yourself be immersed in the language, putting in your 2 cents when you can (quite literally, it will be about 2 cents for the first 6 months) and asking lots of questions when you need clarification or have a question about a new term or phrase.
What can you learn from my experience? Before you move abroad, start using your second language as often as you can in real-world situations with native speakers. That could mean taking in-person or online language or accent classes with a native speaker or going to events where you can you practice your language skills. With just a couple of hours a week (I prefer the convenience of sitting in bed and doing 2 hours of Skype conversation on Saturday and Sunday mornings!), you can truly prepare yourself for where you’re going to live.
You Have to Relearn Everything
You’ll realize one thing very quickly when you move abroad for work: You were going through your life back home on autopilot. One factor that makes an international relocation so disorienting is figuring out how to do everything all over again. A lot of things you took for granted as just “the way things are” actually aren’t that way at all in other cultures. People in your new country might greet each other in a different way than you’re used to, or give you less (or more) personal space. Meals might happen at different times. The etiquette and expectations in your new workplace could be baffling at first. On top of that, nothing is routine anymore. Back home, you knew how to go about the daily business of life — getting around, buying food, banking, going to the doctor, mailing a package. But all of those things could work very differently in your new country.
When I lived in Mexico, I was still on American time. That means, you arrive to meetings 15 minutes early. Well, I learned very quickly (after sitting alone outside the school for 30 -45 minutes) that everyone else arrives about 30 minutes late, and this is acceptable. So I started arriving exactly on time (which was painful for my prompt American “meeting arrival time” internal clock). At least I only waited about 20-30 minutes for the meeting to start! Ha!
It’s important to remember that all of this gets pretty exhausting and to cut yourself some slack. When you’re feeling frustrated or even regretful that you moved abroad, a lot of that is just being bone-tired from learning how to do life in a new place. The key is acceptance of the way things are in your home. It’s also important to have plenty of support as you go through this transition. If you’re studying the language with a native speaker, your tutor can also help you navigate cultural differences, or even an understanding colleague, maybe someone who has also traveled a lot and can do an experience share. If you’re part of a group of employees that your company is sending abroad, ask whether each of you can be paired with a “work buddy” in your new office. Having someone to ask how to behave in meetings or to help you figure out the train system is invaluable.
Your Family Needs Support, Too
If your family will be going abroad with you, do all that you can before, during and after your move to help them through this major life change. As excited as your spouse is about your international move and what it means for your career, they might be experiencing some difficult feelings, too. If your spouse has left their own job because of your move, they may feel that they’ve lost part of their identity (and what to do with their long days at home!).
Your family can also become isolated if they aren’t learning the local language. If you’re the only one who’s becoming fluent (because you have 8 hours of talking each day), then your family will depend solely on you for making doctor’s appointments, talking to the kids’ teachers and other daily tasks. That puts a lot on your plate, and it can become a source of tension and conflict in your family.
A lack of fluency also holds your family back from making new friends and forming a new support system to replace the one they left behind back home. (Yes, it’s easier than ever to stay in touch internationally thanks to Facebook, Skype, etc. But there’s no replacement for in-person time with people who care about you. You need friends in your new country as well as your loved ones back home.)
If your family members are extremely unhappy after an international relocation, you could even end up having to move home, which could damage your finances, your career and your relationships with each other. Over 50% of all failed relocations cite that the reason was due to ‘an inability to assimilate and/or adjust to new location’.
That’s why an essential step during an international move is making sure your family is getting the same support with language and cultural learning that you are getting. Your company’s relocation package might already include various services for your family, such as counseling, language lessons and assistance with a job hunt. But even if you need to pick up the tab for additional language training, it’s money well spent.
By the way, don’t overlook language training for your family, even if you’ll be living in a community of other expats and can still conduct much of your life in your native language. In this situation, they’re probably less likely to feel depressed and isolated. But if they never leave your “expat bubble,” they will miss a lot of the growth, learning and memorable experiences of living in another culture.
You’ll Change in Surprising Ways
Using a different language every day doesn’t just mean that you’re speaking different words. It can also mean that your mind works differently.
Take this example from an article in Psychology Today:
Early in her career, Berkeley Emeritus Professor Susan Ervin-Tripp conducted a study in which she asked Japanese-American women to complete sentences she gave them in both Japanese and English. She found that they proposed very different endings depending on the language used. Thus, for the sentence beginning, “When my wishes conflict with my family . . .” one participant’s Japanese ending was, “. . . it is a time of great unhappiness,” whereas the English ending was, “. . . I do what I want.”
According to the article’s author, psycholinguistics professor François Grosjean, shifting the language we use can also shift our mindset to that of a different culture.
Writer Federico Prandi has experienced this firsthand. He says he’s more upbeat and energetic when he writes or socializes in English than in his native Italian.
And I’ve seen something similar in my own life. A friend from Mexico once told me that I was a lot sweeter when I spoke Spanish! I think this must be because of the culture of Campeche, the small town in the Yucatan where I finally truly learned Spanish after years of classroom study failed to give me the fluency I wanted. The culture in Campeche reminds me of the Deep South in the United States. The women I learned from there were sugar-sweet, and I guess I incorporated some of that into the way I now speak Spanish.
You’ll be happy to know that working in your second language also might make you better at your job. Research shows that speaking more than one language improves intelligence, attention and other skills. Working in a second language may also help you be more analytical, make better decisions and keep your cool during negotiations.
Your mind isn’t the only thing that changes, though. You might gain, or lose, a lot of weight. And there may be little rhyme or reason to how your body responds to living in another country.
Somehow, I gained 10 pounds during a month in Japan, a country renowned for its trim, healthy population. On the other hand, I quickly lost weight living in Mexico, a country known for diabetes and curvy figures. And I have a friend from France, the supposed capital of effortlessly thin women, who dropped 25 pounds during three months in New York.
You (Kind of) Can’t Go Home Again
One of the most jarring parts of an international relocation might come when you visit your home country or move back permanently. Almost always, expats know that there will be at least some adjustment and culture shock when they go abroad. They take for granted, however, that life will pick up just as it was before they left when they’re home again. Something very different, though, happens when they do return: They’re shocked that the place they’ve thought of as home and missed tremendously now feels like a foreign country. So what’s going on here?
In its materials for international employees, the U.S. State Department does a good of summing up why we experience reverse culture shock:
- Home has changed. Life went on back home after you moved abroad. Your neighbors got divorced. Your niece is a teenager now. Your favorite restaurant closed. Your best friends don’t seem to have anything in common with you anymore. Pop culture has new obsessions. All of the changes you encounter, whether large or small, can make you feel disoriented and create a very real sense of loss about what you missed while living abroad.
- You have changed. Working in another country, you learned how to fit into a new culture. At some point, all of the differences became familiar to you. The new routines and the new people in your life started feeling more like home. But there’s a side effect to this adaptation: Back in your native country, it feels less like home.
I, too, felt this after coming back from Mexico. I don’t know if you’ll relate to this, but I had a harder time making friends, or, should I say, making friends that had similar experiences to mine. We didn’t connect on as many levels as before.
It seems like my fellow Americans just didn’t ‘get me’ anymore. When I moved back to the US, I actually moved to the part of the city that has more Spanish-speaking residents, and when an American friend who has never lived abroad came to visit me, he said, “This looks like a rough part of town. There are stray dogs over here too!” While stray dogs in the US constitute as a ‘not great’ part of town, in Mexico, all dogs are stray, and so I was used to it. Dogs are not seen as pets in Mexico, not to be coddled and given tutus to wear at Halloween. They are animals to be free outside. So while I hadn’t even noticed the stray dogs, my friend saw it quite differently. The roosters waking me up at 6am also surprised them. It’s pretty natural to have some roosters in your backyard in Mexico, but obviously, not so urban America. It’s as if I had been given different eyes to look out of after living abroad, which made it harder to connect at times. And places that feel foreign to my friends, now feel like home to me.
Just as you gave yourself time to adjust to living abroad, be patient with how you react to your home country when you return from overseas. You weathered lots of strong emotions during your move, and you’ll conquer them again back home.
Fluency Corp: Your Guide to Working Abroad
An international relocation is one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do. And it’s also one of the most challenging. Familiarizing yourself with what to expect when you work abroad can help you prepare and speed up the adjustment process. At Fluency Corp, we’ve helped countless expat employees and their families build thriving work and personal lives in new countries. We provide both in-person and online language training, and our native-speaker instructors also offer valuable cultural guidance. For a free consultation, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or (800) 401-3159.