How do you feel when you realise how much there is to do before moving abroad? I know, I know… better not think about it.
But actually, this moment of insight is great! I want to use it to guide you through the steps you need to take from that point onward to take you from “I know how much I don’t know” to “It’s so obvious I don’t even notice I know it!”.
I don’t know what I don’t know.
When you first learn or decide that you want to take up a longer project abroad, you may be excited for all the new people you’re going to meet, all the new things you’re going to learn and all the new situations you’re going to experience. You also at first may not be aware of all the logistics and other more emotional challenges that might be related to such a move. At first, you are unconsciously incompetent.
It’s like with driving a car. When you are younger, it just seems so easy – you get in, turn the lights on and you go ahead! With time, you start to realise that you don’t know all the road rules you don’t know how to change a tyre, you don’t know how to defog the windows and oh my gosh all those gears and changing them while looking at the crossing while talking to the passengers… That’s a point when you reach the next stage – the conscious incompetence. That’s where you start thinking “Yeah, I could probably use a driving course before I start by driving myself” 😉
I know what I don’t know.
It’s similar with the move abroad. At some point more and more questions come up, you learn from your colleagues that there are things you haven’t thought about, your partner also starts to have their own requests that you haven’t included in your plans before.
Accommodation, flights, visas, family, taxes, bank accounts, being scared, being happy, then feeling helpless, and back to scared again, then friends telling you not to go, then colleagues telling you how hard it is to work there, then you freaking out that you haven’t even been to the country and don’t know absolutely anything about it.
If you are in that stage now – please do not freak out.
That’s a lot to think about, but it is manageable. What will likely be helpful for you now is to try and group the concerns or to-do’s into a couple of categories. It could be things like “logistics”, “personal and relationship”, “work-related”, “culture”… Something that will help you manage this workload! After all, it is a lot of things to do almost at once within a limited amount of time.
Once this is done, it is a time for your choice. You can choose what to focus on first, you can choose your next steps.
For cultural education – are you going to read some articles about how things are done in this other country? Are you going to read what is the most common way of making decisions? Are you going to learn about experiences of other people about this place, what they liked, what they didn’t like, what surprised them?
For personal and relationships bucket – are you going to try and find out what to expect after the move? Are you going to figure out how to manage the relationships with the people who are staying in your current country?
Once you choose, you can start taking steps to increase your competence in given areas – read, speak to people, experience, learn. You might also choose one particular mentor or coach (or driving teacher, to use the car metaphor again :)), who will guide you through the complicated meanders of this new environment.
There is one most important thing to learn first though – that you will never be able to predict everything, that there will always be something that you have not planned or expected.
But you might do as much as you can to limit the surprises and to at least put you at ease for the first couple of days or weeks in the new location.
I know it! I now need to practice.
There comes a point when you arrive in this new country and you encounter a situation which you have been preparing for beforehand. And in that point you can use the knowledge and skills you’ve learned to adequately approach this situation.
For example if you have been really worried about not being able to make small talk after coming over to the UK, you have probably read quite a few articles, watched some English films and potentially also talked to some colleagues who have had experiences with working with the British. When you finally are in a situation where the first 10 minutes of the meeting is spent on talking about the past weekend or how beautiful the weather is today, you are competent enough to give it a try and join in, ask further questions, feel comfortable as that’s what you expected.
It is probably at that point still a conscious activity. So you’re thinking about the following questions for the small talk, you analyse what people are saying to try and understand the dynamics and unwritten rules of these conversations. But you can join in.
That’s the stage where you practice. You practice and experience what you’ve learned and read about.
It’s so obvious that I don’t even notice I know it!
When you practice long enough, there usually comes a moment when you don’t even realise you are using the newly acquired skills. You would talk about the weather and say “How are you” to everyone without much thinking cause that’s the way it’s done here. This means you’re comfortable enough with this skill, that it doesn’t take up that much energy from you anymore to use it.
With driving a car, it’s the stage where you can drive in a busy city with a radio on and chatting to a colleague sitting next to you, without much problem.
You may sometimes need to reverse to the conscious competence stage, like when you approach a particularly complicated crossing or go through an area you don’t know very well. If you were a driver, you would stop chatting and say just give me minute, let me focus on that bit for a while cause the GPS shows a lot of turns ahead!
It is very likely that you will need to do the same in a new cross-cultural situation. When the context changes or when new things to do appear or when you’re tired and not so sharp. And it is absolutely fine. These skills need to be practiced.
Awareness and knowledge are only the first steps, but you need to take conscious actions to make sure you truly are developing your intercultural skills.