You arrive in another country – serious professional, accomplished individual. Suddenly it turns out that you don’t know where to start, you depend on other people, you don’t always understand the ones around you, you don’t know where to buy best groceries or where to find certain services. You overpay, you frustrate and eventually – you learn the ways that work for you and the society that you moved to. You become more competent in the new environment.
We will have a look at the competence challenge of the expat life today.
The incompetence. A feeling that many expats face after moving to another country, sometimes even to another region of the same country. This feeling is so annoying especially because you have not been like that in your previous location. Back there, you were the high performing employee, a successful individual. That was one of the reasons you moved abroad in the first place.
Andy Molinsky in his book “Global Dexterity” (very practical book and I very much recommend you to read it!) indicates three main challenges that expats face in their initial adaptation. One of them is the competence challenge.
It’s important to remember that as many things in life, this feeling of incompetency is just a phase, something that we can work on and something that will improve with time. Feeling consciously incompetent is a great place to start identifying the challenges and working on them.
What do we mean by the competence challenge?
Let me share some of my personal examples with you to illustrate what might hide under this ‘competence challenge’.
I remember when I first came to London, I was overwhelmed by how much time people spend talking about… well, nothing important really. Small talk, that is. I didn’t get the purpose, I didn’t get the setting, I didn’t see why I would start doing it or why someone was staring at me weirdly when I didn’t join in. I felt incompetent in this complicated world of British small talk. I felt like I was not good enough.
It’s not that we don’t talk in Poland of course, but I feel that the conversations at work are just more direct and with people you actually want to speak to or learn more about. There I didn’t feel awkward not speaking to someone in the lifts, for example. I did start feeling awkward in London, while everyone else seemed to be so comfortable and natural in this situation, asking random people about their weekend plans or what they think of the weather.
Another piece of incompetence in my case was the foreign language. I did have a very good level of English when I came here, I would say. What I did not have though is the skills in deciphering various accents that I was previously unfamiliar with or the informal words that were widely used among my British colleagues. I was also lacking vocabulary in the context of the events I was organising. I felt incompetent and the self-esteem just went extremely down. In a way, I think it might have been easier to move to a country where I didn’t think I’d known the language so well. At least in that scenario I would have been more prepared to handle these obstacles and accept my lack of language competence.
One last example from my experience I want to give is the general life resourcefulness. Back home I knew perfectly well where to find best grocery prices, where to get certain things from, where to go to find different services at good quality, who to ask for advice. Here, I made a mistake of not making enough research at the beginning. But hey, not enough time right?
There is a drugstore here in the UK called Boots, where you can find various cosmetics, vitamins, perfumes etc. For all of you who have lived in the UK, you might be like “what the hell, what’s so important about Boots?!”. But Boots was my mini-milestone in the adaptation here, seriously! There is no Boots in Poland (but there are other stores, obviously). Because I was seeing only Boots Opticians everywhere on my route at the beginning, I didn’t even think that there might be more to it, it was not obvious. So after a week where I needed a store of this sort, I asked a friend of mine “what is the store like Rossmann [Polish equivalent] here?” and they said Boots and Superdrug often have great offers. I went to Boots and bought everything I needed. Plus 10 points to British resourcefulness! 🙂 Really minor thing, and Boots or Superdrug would probably be one of the first results if I googled ‘drugstore London’. But I didn’t have any trust towards the brand. I didn’t know this brand at all before. It was the first time I heard about it. I might have gone to any other shop that would show up on the Google results list back then and I wouldn’t know the difference.
Another moment of feeling like an alien was when I needed to organise a dinner work event for around 25 people after only about a month of living in London. First moment of huge incompetency was finding a restaurant. I mean, we all know that there are many more important expenses to make during your first month of living abroad than going to restaurants, so obviously I didn’t do it much. That also meant that I didn’t know any restaurants around. Literally, almost all the restaurants I was googling meant nothing to me. Plus, I needed to google all the locations as I was not fully familiar with London’s topography and area names. It was a painful process, but I made the effort, looked at the lists of top London restaurants and all that. After presenting to the rest of the team, it appeared that half of these choices are ‘crap’ for reasons I wasn’t able to relate to, but I’ll get to that later. Next step was to actually book the restaurant. And another shock came. “Dinner for 25 people, that would be at 5500 GBP minimum spend. ” – – “Whaaaaaat? I could have a new car for that in Poland!” [Pound was a stronger currency back then though!]. And my team has been laughing at this comment of mine ever since. Yes, London is expensive.
My strategies for overcoming the competency challenge
When you are reading the above examples, you might have various reactions to it. You might think “Oh my gosh, what a stupid girl” – fair enough. You might think “I was exactly the same but managed to work around these challenges” – I’m proud of you and you should pass your knowledge and experience on to other people! Or you might think “Wow, that’s me right now. Good to know that others also feel the same way, but what can I do about it?! How can I make it better?!” – and this below section is for you.
See what I’ve done, or I think I should have done back then to feel less incompetent. I hope it might spark some ideas or motivation for action in you. Let me know if it does or if you’ve tried other strategies that worked!
Strategies for communication challenges
– observe the local people around you and note key things that seem to make their conversations rewarding and effective
– try to understand the reasons behind people communicating a certain way
– step by step try to imitate their ways and adapt your behaviour. It won’t feel natural at first, but it’s at least worth trying to feel less lonely and alien, isn’t it? 😉
When I started feeling incompetent in this field, I did exactly all the three above. Still not fully there yet, still not fully natural in this, but most of the times I can switch it on and off if I’d like. I talked to my British colleagues a lot about what they get from these conversations, how I perceive them, listened to how they perceive it all. I was lucky to have some colleagues who were super open to talk about the differences and were supportive in my adaptation process. I tried to spot patterns of the small talk behaviours that can help me adapt my conversation style as well. You can read more about it in the article about British chit chat as well.
Strategies for overcoming language incompetence
Whether you are fluent or not in the language of the country you are moving to, there is one strategy to follow: allow yourself for mistakes. Give yourself the permission to make mistakes and don’t assess your competency and resourcefulness through the language lens.
I struggled a lot with this one, I won’t lie. I really came to England with a feeling that I am fluent in English – I finished IB, I worked in English a lot for two years before moving abroad, I was good in my class and test-wise I was at C1/C2 level, I was watching movies in English, reading books and all that. I really felt competent. But the sole experience of me having to ask someone to repeat three times what they have said or not understanding some messages read out through the megaphone in the trains etc was so undermining. I was over-confident that out of all the things that could be challenging in moving abroad, English language will not be one of them. And to be honest, in the end with the level I was on, I picked up really quickly. However at the beginning, it was very hard to admit to the friends and family that this is one of the things that I struggled with. They would say things like “how come, you’ve got a great level of English, I’m sure it’s fine”.
The worst thing is your own belief that you are supposed to know something, supposed to be something or supposed to cope with something well. Don’t take my example, please, and allow yourself for mistakes. This will really make the process of learning much easier. Once you allow yourself for mistakes, you can then take up all the other language-learning strategies – start talking, even if you need to mix two languages just do it for the sole sake of communicating, watch films, read articles and books, go to meet up groups for language exchange…
Strategies for enhancing your feeling of resourcefulness straight away
Two main things I would say:
– don’t be afraid to ask
The thing I did after my little Boots “adventure” is I sat down with my laptop and made a list of all the shops and services I was using regularly back home. Things like, grocery shops, markets, hairdressers and all that. I made an exact list of brands and shops I was using. Then I researched what the equivalents of those could be and whether there are any nearby.
Next thing I did was to walk a lot or take the bus. The disadvantage of the tube (=metro=underground) is that it is under-the-ground and therefore you can’t really see the city that way and familiarize yourself with the various brands and places. I was taking a bus more often and walking around different neighbourhoods and areas. That way I got more familiar with the most popular brands, shops and with the general feel of the city. I felt more confident in the city I was in and a lot of places felt more familiar and “mine” thanks to this when I ever needed to go there again.
Last but not least – I started asking people about their opinions and recommendations. After I’ve done my own research I was double-checking it with my colleagues’ opinions. Google is great, but I trust my friends more than Google 😉 This enabled me to familiarize myself with the names of the hot spots on the London’s restaurant or consumer map, but also to make connections with people and start a conversation. People like to feel useful and knowledgeable, so this acts to your advantage here! 🙂
What were the strategies that worked for you to feel more competent and confident in your new location? What other strategies would you add to the list? Which of the above strategies you are about to try out?