Household Goods Forwarders Association of America, Inc.
The value of international experience
International experience is needed to compete in the global marketplace. Companies need mufticultural and multilingual executives. International competence also is needed by home-based executives whose companies do business around the world.
Need for cross-cultural understanding
The shape of things to come suggests that all employees, but most obviously expatriates and their families, need to develop a much greater degree of cross-cultural understanding.
Those who learn to step back and examine their own cultural biases usually find that cultural differences, often perceived as difficulties, need not present serious problems. In fact, learning to appreciate these very differences is the challenge presented by an international assignment. The ability to value the differences and to appreciate the "otherness" of a different culture is vital to succeeding in another culture.
Preparation for an overseas assignment should consist of more than a mere "informational briefing" hastily given before an expatriate family departs. If the relocating employee -and his or her family - does not have some perspective on "where they are coming from" (their own cultural biases and assumptions), it will be difficult for them to value the all important cultural "differences."
Where we are coming from affects where we are going
In order to understand how to communicate across cultures, we need to realize the influence our past experience has on us. If we analyze our own interactions with friends and strangers, we will have little trouble accepting the notion that where people come from - their cultural histories - is crucial to communication. Our personal experiences, structured by our culture, help determine what we value, what we see, and how we behave.
In short, what our culture has taught us, in both conscious and unconscious ways, will come out during all of our communications. However, it will be even more obvious when we communicate with people from another culture. Some simple examples will illustrate this. For example, people from some cultures deem men more important than women. These people's behavior toward each gender will be influenced by this orientation. Our background colors what we perceive.
Judgment of beauty is another good example. In the Canada, as in many Western countries, the slim statuesque build of today's super models represents the cultural stereotype of female beauty. Not so long ago, as a trip to an art gallery quickly will reveal, a more plump, well-rounded figure was the norm. In many Eastern European countries, a heavier, stockier body reflects the ideal. These examples - and there are countless others - point out that our culture provides the framework for our experiences and values. This, in turn, defines our world view and dictates how we interact with the people with whom we come into contact.
We use symbols to communicate
Most of our communication with one another is accomplished through our use of symbols in language and actions. The use of symbols affects our actions as well as our words. A simple hand motion can convey a host of unrelated meanings and interpretations. The hand gesture used by hitchhikers in the Canada might produce a punch in the nose in other cultures. In other words, the symbols that we use to share our cultural experiences often might be subject to confusion and ambiguity.
The cross-cultural communication killer: Ethnocentrism
Adapting to change, as-everyone knows, is not simple. Many attitudes and behaviors are deeply ingrained. And many of them are subject to ethnocentric influences. Many people are guilty of assuming that their cultural group, whatever it might be, is superior to all other groups. Everyone, therefore, judges other cultures by their own standard. How often do people say, "Our way is the right way"? Or we might foolishly assume our ideas and solutions to problems are the only ones.
It is difficult to achieve mutual understanding if we place our own culture in a central position of priority or worth. How foolish to assume that because one culture prays on Saturdays while another worships on Sundays, one of them is superior to the other. Or take, for example, our approach to competition and winning. Because winning is important in many Western countries, people assume all cultures ought to strive to win and be first. But, there are numerous cultures where competition and winning are unimportant! On the contrary, cooperation and sharing are valued highly. This ethnocentrism is what dooms intercultural communication to failure and often explains the hasty return of unsuccessful expatriates.
Expatriate families need a style of communication that reflects an attitude of mutual respect and trust. To avoid the dangers of ethnocentrism, they need to understand their own cultural assumptions. It is important for them to remember they will not succeed in their communications at the destination culture if, by actions or words, they appear to be condescending. Every individual and every culture wants to believe it is as worthy as any other. Words or actions by expatriate families suggesting they do not value the host culture will diminish their host's sense of worth and will stop meaningful interaction in its tracks.
What it takes to succeed abroad :
- The changes required for successful expatriate families are not easy. Family members need to:
- Have a willingness to communicate.
- Have empathy toward foreign cultures (in general).
- Be tolerant of views that differ from their own.
- Develop a somewhat more relativistic approach to the universe.
- Resolve to adopt positive behaviors and attitudes.
- Try to recognize and overcome ethnocentrism and feelings of superiority.
- Remember that certain things that are tolerated in our culture can be a criminal offense in another culture..
International experience has obvious educational and career value. Our ability to change, to make adjustments in our communication habits, gives us the potential tools to broaden our own cultural horizons. With an openness toward change, a willingness to revise our own cultural premises, and the enthusiasm to work it through, we will be on the way to cultivating our fullest human potential. This is the ultimate reward of the expatriate experience.
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