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New Job, New Country | Tips for Adapting to a Foreign Workplace

A picture of a globe with a paper airplane next to it.

All of us have experienced the first day at a new job: making awkward introductions, trying to remember all of those new names, and often feeling somewhat like a fish out of water. Now imagine that exact scenario, and add a language barrier, a completely different culture, and possible jet-lag from having recently arrived in a new country. Yes, your first few days at a new job in another part of the world is most definitely an interesting experience! I remember my first days, and weeks, as being somewhat surreal, and I’d like to share a few tips to help you adjust.

Never, ever, assume that work culture is the same in all countries

Immersing yourself in the culture goes beyond the new language, food, and friends; culture is also an intrinsic part of the workplace. Preparing yourself by doing research on your particular country, and by specifically speaking to others and can alert you to key differences you should be aware of and can make your transition a lot easier. For example, certain cultures may be more flexible in terms of work hours than others. A lot of these finer nuances may not be found in guidebooks and articles, but can be shared by other foreigners with hands-on experience.

Research the basics for proper introductions

If there is a significant language barrier, it always makes a good impression to be able to introduce yourself, or at least greet people, in their native language. Practice this well, as it won’t come naturally when you are flustered. Also research whether there are any traditions you should be aware of. In some countries it is customary to bring a small gift for your superiors. Don’t be surprised by questions that seem personal, as this may be completely normal in another country. I found it weird that my co-workers in Korea were delving straight into my age and relationship status right after the first greetings, but soon found out that this was commonplace, and became comfortable with it.

Business casual may not be what you are used to

This is a particularly important point for women. Of course both men and women should be sure to ask their new employers about the dress code, but dress standards for men are more universal. Apart from differences in fashion and appropriate work wear, standards of modesty also differ between countries. In Korea, I was surprised by the fact that the slightest hint of cleavage was inappropriate, whilst wearing dresses shorter than what I was used to in the workplace was acceptable. It is really important to familiarize yourself with these subtle differences, to avoid potential embarrassment and uneasiness.

Understand the chain of cultural hierarchy

Hierarchy plays an important role in certain cultures, and this may be very apparent in the workplace. As an example, in certain countries it may be inappropriate for you to make a request for a personal day or anything else directly to a superior who is a couple of levels above you. In such cases you may have to speak to your immediate superior who sends your request up the chain of command. Therefore, casually making a request at the water fountain may be a faux pas. Don’t be afraid to ask your immediate superior and other foreigners how hierarchy fits into the workplace.

When in Rome…

Your transition becomes easier with time, as long as you are observant and flexible in your approach. Whilst cultural exchange is always a good thing, and it may be a very enriching experiences for all parties if you share a bit about the work culture you are used to, I don’t recommend only doing things your way with little regard for cultural norms. This definitely won’t make a good impression on your co-workers, and could really strain your entire experience.

Kwintessential provides very informative etiquette guides for a variety of countries, which could be a good starting point for researching your new workplace. Always ask your co-workers for advice, be observant, and do your research! Being able to move across cultures with ease is a skill worth learning, and it will be of great benefit to you even in your own country in the long run.

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About the Author | Chéri-Leigh Erasmus was born and raised in South Africa. She studied International Relations at Stellenbosch University, where she also worked in the Postgraduate & International Office. She spent two years as a Guest English Teacher in Daegu, South Korea, and currently resides in Washington, DC, where she works in the nonprofit sector. Chéri-Leigh is an avid traveler, and believes that working or studying abroad expands one’s horizons like few other things can

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