A few years ago, I was on a long distance phone call to a country in Africa for a job there. I would make “mmm hmms” sounds trying to affirm what they were saying, but the time delay on the phone caused them to think I was trying to interject. As a result, they would stop and we would have this awkward five-minute silence after which I told them to please continue.
There are communication challenges during the job hunt, both domestically and internationally. Yet this experience reminded me of the popular expression in South East Asia, “same same, but different,” usually applied when looking at two souvenirs. Thinking beyond the phone call, I find this bit of advice helpful when applying for jobs abroad: The same tips you would use domestically can work in an international context, but there are some differences that should not be ignored. Here are a few to keep in mind.
- Have a great application. There are some excellent recommendations about how to make a good impression in resumes and interviews that are all true no matter where in the world you apply.
- Understand what you offer. Don’t disparage your domestic work experience. If you did project X in your hometown, you can still use it to demonstrate that you have skills that are relevant to the job you’re applying for.
- Cultural sensitivity is key. For example, in a job interview it may be more common for the people you meet to start 15 minutes late, to address women differently, to shake hands (Koreans will often grasp their left hand to their right arm that does the shaking) or exchange business cards in a certain way. (If you search online “country name business etiquette” there are usually resources.) Reserving judgment and demonstrating some of these differences will show that you can integrate into their team.
- Be flexible. While it is helpful to be flexible in a new work environment, the same applies to the application process too. For example, if you are applying to a resource limited setting there maybe a lack of consistent electricity or phone coverage. A potential employer will usually be mindful of these challenges, but also needs to know you can roll with some unusual punches and not complain.
- Understand you are not the savior. It’s hard to be humble in a job interview where you’re talking about your good qualities and achievements. However, if you are hoping to work in a developing country, you have to be mindful that many have a history of foreigners coming in with manifest destiny notions. It is important to acknowledge that positive things are already occurring by the local people. You could demonstrate this type of humility by doing some research of existing projects already occurring in the geographic area and topic where you are looking to work. And express appreciation for the organization’s hard work in this area already for X number of years.
- Don’t ignore time differences. Just a practical piece of advice: if you are making international calls or meetings it’s polite to be conscious of the time zone differences or show appreciation when someone is calling you outside of normal business hours (if you search online “time zone converter” there are several useful resources). Also, and this often true domestically as well, people “in the field” have a high opportunity cost; time they take away to talk to you is time they are not doing work they perceive to be meaningful, so do be respectful and grateful.
- Plan to stay for a while. Employers have sometimes said they get the most out of their employees after the second year, and this is especially true of international work where you might not have the basic understanding of the institutional structures or language. My already awkward call continued and they asked me if I would be willing to commit to two years instead of the proposed one-year contract and I made an audible gasp. Needless to say I did not get offered the job.
Lastly, something to do if you are applying to country you have never been to is look up local news and facts. While I did a few things wrong on that call, I looked up local news ahead of time, so when I was asked whether I had traveled there I was able to say something along the lines of: “I had not had that privilege yet, but since your football team beat South Africa recently it must be worth seeing.”
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by Lauren Anderson