The reality is that we all face problems that must be solved every day. But when living in a foreign culture even the easiest of problems “back home” can become a challenge to solve. Especially at work. And if they are not solved, they can threaten your employment, your very security and your dream of living and working and THRIVING abroad.
Your new country isn’t your old country. How people behave and respond can be quite different.
When “Yes” is better than “No”
Western-style assertiveness is not so common in the rest of the world. A story to illustrate: In the summer of 1993, I was teaching at a university’s summer program (socking away a little extra cash while I was on paid vacation from my college!). The weather was very hot and sweaty – and the classrooms had no air conditioning. And I mean HOT and SWEATY – we were soaking with sweat.
A Coffee Shop
The students suggested that we have our class across the street in an air-conditioned coffee shop – a great idea! Only about eight students in the class, so we would easily fit in a big corner booth. I asked the supervisor if it was okay – and he said, “Yes.” A few minutes later he said, “So you are not having class today?” I replied, “Of course we are, we are going to meet in the coffee shop – as the students requested. That’s okay, isn’t it?” He said, “Yes.”
A few minutes later he – again – said, “So you are not having class today?”
Well . . . we went through this cycle several times before I got a bit upset and told the supervisor, “If you don’t want us to meet at the coffee shop – just SAY ‘NO’!” Needless to say, everyone was upset. But, it didn’t need to be that way – I really should have picked up on it the first time – or at least the second time the supervisor asked if I was not having class.
Western Assertiveness – (this IS important!)
Western assertiveness can be your greatest downfall. Other cultures deal with problems in different ways. Try to learn the most appropriate way to get things done, to get the things done that you want done. I always knew what I wanted, what I needed, but I used their cultural behavior to get it done. Overassertive behavior would not have worked. I got what I wanted, many others didn’t. I don’t care who is right or who is wrong. I just want done what I need to have done. Period. Follow the cultural rules. They work.
My Favorite Phrases
What did I say for getting things done, even when it wasn’t my fault and I knew someone was jacking me around? “I’m sorry I am such a problem – can you help me with this?” Another one that works well is, “What would you do if you had this problem?” Swallow your pride. Life overseas is more like a fun cultural game. Learn how to play it – so YOU win. It is fun and challenging to figure out.
The What would you do if you were me and had this problem? question got me a driver’s license in Taiwan, only seconds after the same clerk told me it was impossible, as my USA license had expired a few days before. I asked her the question – she stamped the forms – and gave me my license! Getting angry and assertive would not have worked. She was right, she was following the law and had every right to refuse my request. But because I asked for her help and advice – she gave me a license.
TED’s Tips™ #1: Develop your skills in dealing with cross-cultural communications and your life will go much smoother overseas! It’s all part of learning to be a skilled expatriate.
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