When I began a year-long fellowship in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, a large city on the southern coast of West Africa, I thought I’d done a good job preparing for the cultural transition. I’d considered the complications that a young, single Western woman might face moving overseas: culture shock, health insurance, language barriers… But as it turned out, the most difficult part of this international assignee’s cultural integration was nothing so important. The hardest part, by far, was taking a taxi.
You see, Abidjan is big. It’s home to over 5 million people, with sprawling neighborhoods and winding roads that cover over 800 square miles. So you can imagine my surprise when I learned that there are no official street names and no formal addresses. Ivoirians navigate the city based on commonly known buildings in different neighborhoods, such as schools, police stations, churches or mosques—and they rarely use GPS navigation.
As a Westerner, accustomed to the structured use of street signs and postal codes, I became totally—literally—lost. I didn’t know any locals to advise me, I wasn’t familiar with common landmarks, and I didn’t know how to negotiate a reasonable cab fare. My first few weeks abroad felt endlessly frustrating and often even made me hesitant to venture outside my home.
Of course, once I memorized some major neighborhoods and landmarks and learned the Ivoirian style of negotiation, I became a lot more confident. By the end of my fellowship, taxi rides were actually my favorite part of the day.
Living and Working Abroad Can Demand a Difficult Adjustment
My struggle to adjust to another culture’s way of life is fairly common. In a 2016 report, Brookfield Global Relocation Services (BGRS) stated that 26% of expats feel ill-equipped for an international assignment and 18% report notable difficulties adjusting to their host country. Unfortunately, BGRS also found that 80% of companies don’t assess the adaptability of international assignees, and only 29% of companies provide a cultural self-assessment tool for employees.
In addition, a recent report by InterNations Business Solutions points out that without sufficient resources to socially integrate and comfortably immerse themselves in local culture, global teams risk employee productivity, cost-efficiency, and ultimately the success of the assignment. These trends reflect an increasing need for international assignees to receive accommodations for their personal transition into a cross-cultural environment—not only their professional transition. Theresa Häfner, Head of Business Solutions at InterNations describes, “[Expats] basically start from scratch to build up a personal support network and find new friends […] Employer support should, therefore, not be limited to only administrative or practical support, but include personal aspects of support to help [international] assignees and their families to socially integrate abroad.”
Unfortunately, the lack of support that international assignees receive is not going to change overnight. But there are several ways international assignees can take matters into their own hands to help make sure they can successfully live and work abroad.
1) Research the Country and Culture Before You Go
The most frustrating aspect of learning to navigate Abidjan was how helpless I felt without enough information. The more I researched and asked questions of my friends and colleagues, the easier and more enjoyable my personal and professional time became.
Before you leave on your international assignment, take advantage of online resources—like CultureWizard—that offer comprehensive information on your host country’s customs and traditions, business protocols, politics and current events, social etiquette and norms, and more. This can help you and your family prevent the confusion, misunderstandings, and tension that can make living and working abroad more difficult.
2) Learn the Local Language
If the local language is not already familiar to you, it’s a good idea to learn even some basic phrases. This can help with essential interactions like purchasing groceries or reading a menu.
Language can also be a powerful tool to help international assignees make a good impression, personally and professionally. Even if you’re not fluent, showing that you have an interest in the language can help you foster strong work relationships and make personal connections. If it is available to you, investing in a language-learning course before your international assignment, or even using language-learning apps, can help you develop the skills you need.
If you’re already living and working abroad, some translation apps and dictionaries provide instant translations, even while you are offline. While this may not always be appropriate in a business context, it can help you become more comfortable with day-to-day tasks.
3) Begin Networking with Locals ASAP
Making as many connections as possible, even prior to arrival, can go a long way toward helping you and your family get settled. Locals can provide helpful insights into cultural life and how best to prepare, and can even help you begin to build trust and become comfortable in a cross-cultural work environment. These connections can also prevent feelings of isolation and ensure that business endeavors get off to a strong start.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Networking can be an intimidating, exhausting task, especially if you are more introverted (like me). Building trust while adapting to foreign expectations is no easy feat. With that in mind, the more you actively participate in the local community, the easier it becomes to develop a personal and professional network.
4) Take a Cultural Assessment
Cultural assessments such as the CultureWizard Culture Calculator use simple questions to identify patterns in different aspects of a person’s values and behaviors. This information creates a profile of a person or culture’s tendencies and expectations, making it easier for international assignees to both appreciate local perspectives and understand their own biases and preferences. Once you have these insights, you can much more easily flex your style and foster strong intercultural communication.
Bottom Line: International Assignees Must Proactively Help Themselves!
To a certain extent, it’s inevitable that international assignees and their families will face some challenges when living and working abroad. It’s just part of the process. While employers play an important role in facilitating this transition, it’s also important that international assignees help themselves. When they are accountable in this way, expats will probably feel much more comfortable in their assignment and will more readily adapt to the needs of their cross-cultural environment.