It was a great honour to be invited as a mentor to the July 17 Vivamentor event at Publicis Media. Here is the gist of my answers to their most common question: how to adapt to a new work culture when you move country.
I spoke to women from 12 countries that night. Some of them were thinking about moving to a new country, some of them have just moved to the UK, some of them moved to the UK 16 years ago and still felt like a stranger.
I moved countries the first time when 7 years old, without knowing any language but my own. Since then, I have lived in 7 countries and worked in 5 more.
I have never felt more at home than at the vivamentor event. I was asked which my favourite country was: my favourite place is in a crowd like theirs, with open-minded people, prepared to have a good laugh about themselves and their countrymen.
We shared some of our common fears and difficulties. I encouraged them to break their difficulties down to small bits that can be tackled more easily. Some examples include:
- Communication: How to make sure people understand me?
- Integration: What to do with people who have no patience to listen to me? How to deal with people that make disparaging remarks about my accent or my language skills? How do I know that others truly accept me?
- Identity: How to stay true to myself while adapting to a new culture?
The easiest to tackle is communication. Languages can be learned, as can non-verbal communication, with more difficulty. All women I spoke to were not only proficient, but experts in the English language. After all, one of the core skills they use in their work is the language. If anything, they could work on accents and delivery. The LSE regularly engages Sue Henry (http://womcom.uk/team/susan-henry) to help with accents and communication, and I’m sure there are many more. We also talked about sequential vs. synchronic time perception (see the work by Fons Trompenaar) and how to interrupt people in different cultures. For example, I have many colleagues from Latin America whose conversations overlap and find it awkward when it stops. In contrast, I used to find a pause within exchanges more acceptable. You can imagine how little I got to speak to them before I figured that out!
Integration is tricky because it involves emotions and the cues get lost in translation. Most women I talked to were very well informed about the values of their host country and where people are the most vulnerable. The problem was more that they did not feel listened to and treated as an equal. Here I recommended mainly three approaches that also work well in other contexts such as gender:
1) exercise and prepare communication (in front of a mirror, or taping yourself)
2) understand the reasons of hostility to tackle them more specifically (does anyone feel threatened? Gain their trust or be honest to yourself about your competition. Do they have no time? Schedule longer meetings and prepare summarizing material. Is there subconscious bias? Call them out on it etc.), and
3) emphasize your specific skills and contribution (e.g., at the end of a meeting state explicitly how productive it was, how much content you generated together, how your skills complement each other).
Building your identity is the hardest because feeling threatened about it can make us very emotional, and then it’s hard to really think about it. Keep in mind that
1) identity is not only about culture – one British person can be very different from another
2) identity can have several layers that don’t need to be the same (e.g., your identity as a family, as a team, as a company, as a circle of friends), and
3) identity doesn’t only come as a package but consists of many ingredients that melt into your uniqueness. You can very much stay true to yourself while learning how to fit in on one or the other dimension; and feeling disliked in one dimension doesn’t mean that you must change your whole self to be liked.