Travelling for work is often a good selling point, which companies use to attract young professionals. Taglines of “you will get to see the world”, “you will get to work with people from other cultures”, “you will increase your international experience” are frequently used.
And all that really is possible, but it is your personal responsibility to benefit from those opportunities. It won’t just happen on its own without your engagement.
There are two scenarios. One in which you spend the whole time in your company’s or client’s offices, in your hotel, in your comfort zone, working as if you were back home. And the other, in which you actively seek opportunities to learn a bit more, meet people, stay two extra days for the weekend to explore the place on your own, or work on adjusting your leadership style and understanding the local values.
Of course, frequent business travel is extremely tiring and physically exhausting, so I understand that you will need to spend some of that leftover energy to do your actual work! But there are some things that you can do to make the travel experience richer and improve your cultural intelligence. Immersing yourself a bit more in a culture may benefit you in many ways. Especially that you will likely have multiple opportunities for that during your career.
First great opportunity, which is advertised by many companies, is that you can see how things work somewhere else.
In order to see and understand how things work, you need to look. You need to be able to actually see those other things first! And you won’t do that when sat in your hotel room 🙂 If it’s possible (and safe!!), start even with just a little walk around town, looking at how people are dressed, how they interact with each other. If you are working with some locals, make it a part of your agenda to get to know them better and understand what’s important for them.
You may also stay in the hotel for the whole week and eat hotel food, interacting with the TV in your room. That’s your choice. But if you do that, don’t claim that you have been to all those places and therefore you know how to work across cultures. That is not a simple been-there, know-it-all correlation.
That’s a difficult one, because us humans are created to categorise things and make sense of them. We are also social creatures and fight for our tribe, while ignoring the “them”. It’s therefore natural that when we see something unfamiliar, we filter it through our lens of what’s normal and assign meaning to it.
As part of your work to be more culturally competent, try to suspend that judgement for a while if you find something weird, annoying or surprising. You will need to actively do that. Notice that something is different, but don’t form an opinion immediately. Or if you form it – rephrase it and adopt a curious mindset. For example, while in Spain instead of saying “It’s ridiculous that you can’t get anything to eat here at 3 pm!” try just making an observation “Seems like all restaurants are closed here in the afternoons”. It’s just how things work here, so you labelling it as ridiculous won’t change anything.
Forming an observation on the other hand, opens the doors for you to ask questions like “I wonder why that is”, “ I wonder when the locals have their meals then”, “The restaurants are closed, but I’m really hungry… what shall I do? Are there at least some places that are open? Maybe someone can advise me”. It puts you in a curious or problem solving mood, rather than just venting at the culture you’ve found yourself in. And that’s a much more productive state to be in.
Sure, it might not always be possible, because emotions do take over at times. Especially if you’re jetlagged or just tired from the long working hours and all the travel. But if you find yourself in that state, try with all your might to get into a different, more helpful mindset. It will make your experience better and more worthwhile.
Find out more
When working abroad or outside of your familiar context, you will be experiencing all those weird, surprising and annoying things. It just will happen, period. You might ignore it and hope for the best, hope that “your ways” of doing things will work in the other context too, you might just want to do the job and go back home, not worrying about the difference. But this won’t be effective for long.
Instead, what you may be doing regularly and get in the habit of it, is: once you’ve identified something as unfamiliar or weird, try to find out more about what underlying cultural values or norms might influence those behaviours.
What if you only travel regionally or for tourist purposes, rather than business?
Well, you will still meet various people on the way, with preferences different to yours. The above tips as well as any cultural adaptation content you find on this website, can easily be translated into many contexts. The key in working within diverse teams and environments is always to suspend judgement and take another perspective. This is a difficult task, and takes practice, so treat every intercultural interaction as a step in the journey rather than the ultimate test of whether you are culturally competent or not.
You might also like: