You’ve done it! Not only have you graduated from university—congratulations on that, by the way—but you’ve also managed to get an overseas job offer. Soon you’ll be jetting off to London, or Dubai or Tokyo to begin a new career in a new country. Maybe you’re volunteering at an NPO, or you’ll be part of a remote team or you’re going to take the nomad worker route and work your way around the world.
Whichever path you take, working overseas is an invaluable experience. It will expose you to new markets, new customers and new ways of thinking. You’ll enjoy the richness of living in a different culture. Most importantly, you are setting yourself up for future success by launching your career on the global stage. Employers value overseas work experience for the flexibility it shows and for the expertise it brings.
Now for the reality check.
Working overseas also presents many unique challenges and hurdles to overcome, which your friends and classmates who have taken a domestic career path won’t need to face. Starting a new career after university represents a shift for anyone. Doing so in an unfamiliar country or culture adds another layer of complexity to go along with all the benefits that it brings.
The good news is that these challenges are not insurmountable. They may not all be easy to overcome, but they are part of the growth you’ll experience and the expertise you’ll gain by living overseas. The key is to go into your new career with the right awareness and the right expectations.
Hold on to your student mindset
You’ve just spent the last several years of your life thinking like a student, so it’s probably the last thing you want to do now that you’re free. However, don’t drop that mindset; hold on to it. Curiosity and a desire to learn will be a tremendous asset in a new country. That learner mindset will allow you to more quickly adapt to a new culture, by equipping you to analyze and study your new environment. Your new colleagues, customers and neighbors will appreciate your curiosity about their country and its culture. Asking questions and showing interest in your new surroundings will help bridge cultural differences.
Understand the many meanings of culture
The most important thing to study and be curious about is the culture of the country you’ll be living and working in. You will encounter cultural differences and different ways of doing things, so the more you can learn about your host culture, the better.
Study and read up on the many ways cultures can vary and how the culture of your host country differs from that of your native culture. An excellent read on this topic is The Culture Map by INSEAD professor Erin Meyer, which provides a unique framework for understanding cultures as well as tips for how to bridge cultural divides.
When you do encounter cultural differences, rather than resisting change, find ways to stretch your behavior in business situations. The book Global Dexterity by Brandeis University professor Andy Molinksy is a great guide to show how to adapt your behavior in cross-cultural situations while remaining true to yourself.
Remember also that there are other types of culture you’ll need to navigate, such as your company culture. Don’t assume that your company culture will automatically reflect the culture of your host country, or that your company will have a global culture if it’s a multinational. Here in Japan, I have encountered many cases where the local branch of a multinational has a very domestic culture, often because that local branch was an acquisition and so its legacy culture has survived. I’ve also seen examples of Japanese corporate culture which is radically at odds with Japanese national culture, so it’s safe to hold your assumptions in check. Learn about your company culture, learn about your team culture, and don’t assume that either will be the same as the host culture around it.
Build bridges through commonalities
It’s natural to focus on cultural differences and the challenges that accompany them but remember to also think about cultural similarities and basic human connections. Socialize often and early to find what you have in common with your colleagues outside of work. Love of sports, food, similar hobbies? Take a positive mindset and see your new colleagues through those commonalities, see them as people and let them see you the same way.
Trust is built through socializing and getting to know each other, and in some cultures this carries over to the business world. Trust from colleagues or customers may be less about your professional background and expertise, and more about whether they can trust you as a person. If you’re going to be working in such an environment—The Culture Map can help you identify such cultures—bridge-building like this takes on added importance.
Always keep your goal in mind
Why are you working overseas? For fun, for career experience? Because it aligns with your personal mission and your sense of purpose?
Keep your goal in mind when things are getting you down, to motivate you onwards. Use that goal as your compass and align yourself with it when you need to decide how to move ahead.
How adaptable are you? How easy or difficult is it for you to work across cultures? What is unique about your own culture? Knowing yourself—your strengths and areas needing improvement—will give you a clarity that not only helps ground you, but it also shows you where you can focus your adaptation efforts. You’ve probably heard about the importance of Emotional Intelligence in business. In cross-cultural situations, your Cultural Intelligence—a numerical score showing your awareness and ability to work in cross-cultural situations—will help you. Take an online assessment to measure it and see where you’re doing well, and what you need to work at.
Your difference is your value
Your new employer hired you for your professionalism and skills, but they probably also hired you for the cultural and cognitive diversity that you’ll bring to the team.
Remember that you’ll not only be learning from your new employer and colleagues, they’ll also learn from you. Highlight the benefits that your different perspective brings; show the value that you give. Your foreignness can be an asset.
Patience is everyone’s new best friend
Things will be different in your new workplace, maybe very different, and it may take a while to adapt to your new environment. Don’t pressure yourself to adapt too quickly, and don’t expect your colleagues to change themselves for you; both of those are paths to disappointment and stress. Instead, just be patient when things aren’t going as they would in your home culture. Take a step back, breathe and apply your cross-cultural awareness. What assumptions and ideas of common sense do you have that may not travel well and may need to be dropped to succeed in your new environment? Identify where you can take baby steps to shift your behavior to adapt to the new culture and make any behavioral shifts slowly. Take a breath; take your time.
Find a support network
Moving is always stressful, and moving to a new culture can add an additional emotional burden. You may be far away from your friends and family and your usual support network. Isolation can be real, especially if you aren’t fluent in the local language.
You’ll need to build yourself a new local support network. Fellow expats can help you out with advice and a shoulder to cry on when needed; they’ve been through the same things you are going through. Check with your embassy or local chambers of commerce and join networking events. Check sites like LinkedIn, Meetup.com or Facebook Events and make sure you get out there and socialize. It will help you professionally and will help you adapt to your new home.
Finally, remember to have fun! Enjoy the richness of a different culture—the food, the sightseeing, the people. Find time to wander, to get lost purposefully and enjoy your new environment. Personal growth will come from your downtime; your stress levels will drop and your life will be richer.
You’re taking the first step towards a brilliant career, so by following these tips you can make it go that much more smoothly and set yourself up to succeed that much sooner. It’s not hard, and a little mental preparation will position you to thrive.
Good luck out there in the world!