by Einat Mazafi
Prior to moving abroad, most expatriates are busy preparing for the practical matters of making a move; they’re busy researching their new home, making arrangements with moving companies and customs agents, filling out visa applications, and gathering the red-tape necessary to qualify for acceptance. Though language skills may be considered, intercultural communication is often overlooked.
People often mistakenly think that becoming fluent in the language of their new home country is all that is needed for intercultural communication; however, social interaction is far more often about cultural subtleties than it is about words and dialect.
Of course, linguistic skills will go a long way toward helping you understand and be understood. Intercultural communication is much more about cross cultural competency; like the layers of an onion, it goes far deeper than the surface considerations to encompass:
One big misstep that expats make is the assumption that their new home country’s culture is just about heritage, arts, social etiquette, festivals and rituals, religion, or family life. Experts call this assumption one of the most prevailing myths about what “culture” is.
In reality, what you can see, hear and touch is only the surface. Cultural differences are sometimes so subtle that they can go completely unnoticed, and inevitably cause even greater confusion and miscommunication.
By understanding and nurturing what experts refer to as your “intercultural competence,” you may be able to avoid “clumsy gestures based on imperfect knowledge,” as travel writer Rebecca West calls them.
In fact, as statistics show, those who do not put time and consideration into developing cultural competence are 40% more likely to repatriate, as they are unable to cope with living and working in a foreign culture.
Advocates of learning about cross-cultural communication believe that there are a number of approaches and practices that can help would-be expatriates become interculturally effective people. There is no silver bullet, or magic formula; rather, those who seek to become an interculturally effective person should take a multi-dimensional approach by setting some practical goals such as the following:
In order to obtain these goals through intercultural competence, a person with potential for intercultural effectiveness would need to address some specific capacities and develop, as well as exhibit, certain “soft” skills.
However, without a basic willingness for self-reflection and personal development, no amount of theory will help. Before you get on that plane, ask yourself if you are willing to address the following:
If, in earnest, these criteria are met, you are already well on your way to becoming interculturally competent, as this ability is really all about what you know and what you feel. Awareness, knowledge and skill, when applied, will develop cultural competence:
Awareness of what culture is and how you personally react to differences you encounter in everyday life.
Knowledge about your new host culture, in comparison to your native culture, as well as which sorts of emotions that knowledge evokes.
Skills in applying theoretical knowledge about specific cultural differences to daily interaction in another culture, and adjusting behavior to better understand, reflect, and graciously acknowledge differences, thus minimizing the impact of culture shock, not only for you, but also for those who encounter you.
Indeed, cultural intelligence is a significant step toward cultural competence, and acquiring and developing skills around intercultural experience can, and will, go a very long way toward helping you feel more at ease in your new home; likewise, these efforts will go far toward helping your hosts feel more at ease in welcoming you.
Likely, you will have some preconceived stereotypes and clichés about other countries and their inhabitants. While it’s true that these exist because they are easy to recognize, understand, and recall, it’s important to understand that reflecting on your own home and culture, as well as gathering information on your new home’s country, history and society, will set you on the path understanding where such stereotypes stem from, in order to obtain true cultural intelligence.
Like your hair, eye, or skin color, your own culture is something you are not typically self-aware of, but for others, are plain to see. To see yourself, you must look into a mirror; to become aware of your own bias, you must reflect on your own background.
As you embark on your new chapter in a new country, begin to gather the knowledge you’ll need to immerse yourself in your new society (the Internet is a good place to start!). Direct your attention to the aforementioned “outer layers” of the proverbial onion, but once you arrive, take time to consider, and consciously put attention to, the deeper, unseen layers.
You will soon note innumerable unspoken attitudes and norms, which the locals simply consider common sense. Such unspoken rules that influence daily life could include:
Understanding these deeper layers may help you understand more about customs and help you integrate more easily through observation and imitation.
Culture shock is not a myth, but a predictable phenomenon. Patience, a good attitude, and a conscientious recollection that you are a guest in your host country will help buffer discomfort and go a very long way toward helping you thrive in your new home.