December 15, 2009
News & Opinion: 8cr Global: Angels Abroad
8cr Global is a series of guest posts from around the world, discussing ideas about business from a variety of perspectives. More info about each author is located at the end of each post, and you can recognize each 8cr Global entry by the title and logo at the top of each post.
Today's entry is by Adam Daniel Mezei. Enjoy!
ANGELS ABROAD #1: So You're Looking To Work Abroad?
by Adam Daniel Mezei
With the domestic job market slumping as badly as it has been this year, it's hardly a surprise how young American and other Western graduates are increasingly on the prowl for more lucrative employment opportunities abroad. A controversial August 2009 New York Times article described the particularly curious phenomenon of young US college grads seeking out greener job pastures over in the People's Republic of China, what with the explosive growth of the Chinese market in recent years, despite how the global financial crisis has particularly affected the West.
While experienced travelers may boast about the magic formula on how to contend with life as an "angel abroad," there are legions of newcomers to the international job marketplace who will shortly be taking their first tentative steps into the global employment fray armed with nothing other than a Lonely Planet guidebook and the best of intentions.
Since leaving home is never an easy thing to do -- even for the most seasoned travelers -- the inveterate expat roadie can be relied upon to act as a veritable font of bankable knowledge and experiences about what corporate life is like abroad, so that's where this post comes into the picture.
As US citizens, we must dually contend with the ignominious reputation we have also somehow cultivated around the globe as "Ugly Americans," those stereotypical brash, bombastic, presumptive types who seem to have all the right answers but none of the humility nor deference which would otherwise be the comportment of the curious foreign visitor.
Given how few all-in-one travel guides promise to address all your burning questions about expatriate job and life success, perhaps you're the kind of individual who's asked themselves at some stage: "hey, isn't there some kind of stepwise plan I can just follow that tells me how to deal with all of this stuff?"
If this defines you in any way, you'll definitely want to read on. But, first, my friends, I present the facts:
Fact #1: No one expat experience is the same.
Just because things either worked out marvelously or bombed hideously for someone who blazed the trail before you, doesn't mean it'll work out exactly the same for you.
How to Counter It: The reason no one experience is the same is because the situation almost always changes once you hit the ground running.
Imagine the market as a living, breathing organism, dynamically interacting with you as you operate and make decisions within it. How you set the overall tempo of your life abroad is very much determined by who and what you encounter during your very earliest days, and it's this fact alone which contributes -- in my humble experience -- to over half of the attitude you'll eventually carry with you onward into the future in that particular market. How events may have transpired for you during your critical formative moments will very much determine how any and all subsequent events play out for you in the foreign posting, and this is the reason why no two expat experiences are exactly alike.
Living in Prague as I have been for the past four years, I've noticed several trends which contribute significantly to a positive expat experience in the Czech Republic:
- Local spouse: having a Czech spouse to "fix" all purely local problems and challenges that may crop up over time will go a long way towards alleviating any potential stress you may otherwise experience.
- Robust network: barring a spouse or significant other, your maintaining a robust network of local Czech (and non-Czech expat) friends to assist you with occasional dilemmas that will most definitely crop up can be a tremendous asset in assuaging any negative feelings which might otherwise arise. Isolation is bad in any situation, but it's especially pernicious for the aspiring "angel abroad," like you.
- Speak the vernacular: while English is indeed the International Language of Business, it's not viewed with as much enthusiasm in all places abroad. Try to grasp the rudiments and grammar of whichever foreign language is to be spoken in your local market -- if it's not English. Also try to do this before you touch down, and if you can't, then get as quickly up to speed as can once you arrive. More than just a token gesture, this will go a long way towards giving you a lot of face and might even save your hide during certain rough patches. The locals will also respect you much more for trying, and this will give you lots of social capital and brownie points which you can cash in later.
Fact #2: Each international posting is deliciously unique, complex, and intricate in its own right.
While some markets may share distinctly similar characteristics or features, the unfortunate (or fortunate?) reality is that constantly and exhaustively reinventing the wheel is generally par for the course as part of any foreign assignment.
How to Counter It: I've always found it particularly amusing how expats come into a particular foreign setting believing their one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with the locals applies.
So my best advice to you is this: whatever you thought you knew, delete and try again.
Each country presents its own idiosyncratic regional, cultural, and business challenges (even religious ones) -- for example, do I shake my interlocutor's hand at the conclusion of a successful business meeting? Do I bow (and how deeply?) when greeting or saluting them, or do I do nothing whatsoever? Are smiles considered polite or deceptive?
Oftentimes, the penalties or kudos for omitting or fulfilling these specific cultural norms vary widely from market to market, and it will take a considerable amount of time before you master the nuances of the local scene. The key is to be patient and generous with yourself, be present-minded, and realize that you're not going to snag it all in a couple of weeks or even a month's time.
For example, in my local Czech, post-Communist context, there are certain things which are definitely faux-pas, which, regrettably, I've seen one too many foreigners get wrong:
** there is both formal and informal address for friends, business partners, and superiors. Unless someone gives you express permission to refer to them by their first name, always use the polite "you" form of speech until someone gives you permission to do otherwise. While this can also get exasperating for the average American businessperson -- namely, there definitely exists a time limitation in the US for how long we refer to someone by their last name, in the Czech Republic the "Mr." or "Ms." remains in effect (sometimes indefinitely) until someone politely requests to change the level of formality.
Ironically, I've often requested to drop the polite formalities with people whom I've known for quite a while yet been politely refused. That means, we are obligated -- on pain of losing contact -- to maintain the charade of "Mr." and "Ms." and polite "you" address.
** requests to pay invoices in the Czech Republic are not optional, or what I like to call "the German system." Once you agree to pay, there's usually no going back. I've often seen how American businessmen will often accept invoices from their Czech stakeholders for services rendered, only to then defer payment for a month, even longer, which is deemed totally unacceptable and would be strange to a Czech businessman. If it's not your intention to pay for something you've used, don't agree to accept an invoice. The act of paying one should not be a ploy or a ruse. Be straightforward.
** while a warm smile may transmit positivity and be a welcome facial expression in the United States, smiles aren't similarly interpreted in other parts of the world. In the Czech Republic, for instance, during former Communist times, smiling typically indicated that the "smiler" often had something to hide. Bad news was usually delivered by agents of the regime (secret policemen, informants, and/or other sniveling bureaucrats) via a toothy, saccharine smile, often to soften the blow of the boom which would eventually fall. Czechs of the older generations -- the sorts Western businessmen would typically be interacting with -- will have internalized this lesson well, so don't necessarily presume that your affable, bubbly persona will go down equally well everywhere around the globe.
Fact #3: Expats, by their very existence in a market, are outsiders.
Prepare to be judged on this standard, regardless of how sympathetic might aspire to behave vis-a-vis the local culture or society. By your very existence in a foreign country, you're broadcasting all sorts of hidden and not-so-hidden messages to the local population.
How to Counter It: Getting down to the brass tacks of the matter, not all locals are happy to have foreigners in their midst.
To be sure, a vigorous skills transfer may exist for certain key market segments which may fully justify the presence of increased numbers of more experienced foreign professionals in a given country or context, but this phenomenon eventually reaches a critical mass. When the locals become sufficiently skilled enough to handle the rigors of running their local operation (of a larger MNC, for instance), tolerance for foreign "carpetbaggers" wears dreadfully thin.
I've also seen it happen that an expat can bone up all he wants about a given nation's history, language, and culture, yet there are some intransigent knuckleheads who just never want to grant foreigners a fair shot because they're from the "out group." Unlike in the US, where the American Dream is accessible to all and sundry who call the US home, certain countries don't possess the US' magnanimous pedigree, and as such, they never get accustomed to the phenomenon where international employees can traverse the globe from one day to the next with electronic air tickets and a Western passport, globalization by any other name. Sadly, it's just the way it is.
My personal experience in the Czech Republic is that the nation's history of being repeatedly occupied over the past four centuries -- save for its past two decades of sovereign rule and five years since 2004 as members of the EU -- have honed an inborn horsepuckey radar amongst Czechs against the quick promises which some unscrupulous expats tend to dole out quite liberally. While many foreigners have genuinely positive intentions by living and working in the Czech Republic, this doesn't excuse them from the -- at least -- initial suspicion their presence in a capital city like Prague may at first engender among the locals. Anyone with intentions of living in that country, for example, must take all of this into consideration. They become -- by their very presence -- the target of the hurt, scarring, and sorrow which has accumulated over the centuries that isn't even directly attributable to anything they may have done personally.
So what does all of this mean for you and your professional aspirations abroad? Well, the good news is that others have already done the heavy lifting before you and hacked out a clear swathe through the sometimes murky foreign business environment. Their experiences are like a torch to guide your way.
You should have yourself a good think about some of the above suggestions, and while they may not be exactly the right answers for you, they may at least get you thinking about your upcoming international posting (or planned posting), and start you off on the right foot as part of a promising international career.
About Adam Daniel Mezei:
For the past four years, this self-described "crazy Canuck" from Toronto has been an expat in Prague, Czech Republic. More about ADM can be found here.
As part of a new series of writing called Angels Abroad, written exclusively for 8cr Global, I'll be making regular weekly dispatches detailing my experiences with life and work abroad as an expatriate employee and business owner for those thinking about taking up an international posting, or for those already deeply engaged in one. I'll be sharing with you the things I've seen, heard, and witnessed over my time working and living in international markets, and hopefully, through these discussions -- and with your permission, of course -- we might help each other to avoid the pitfalls.
Should you have any questions or particular stories you'd like me to cover, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.