Learn about the local culture when on an expat assignment

Challenges of managing across cultures can be overcome with the necessary training.

With globalisation, there are an increasing number of expatriates working in overseas operations. Therefore, the cultural dimensions of space and time have become more important for expatriates to work successfully in assignments or projects abroad. Indeed, there are many dimensions to culture. In order to understand this, the culture of a country has to be deconstructed in terms of language, social habits, political system, history and the dimensions of space and time.

One may view culture as the accumulation of the best possible solutions to the common challenges faced by the members of a particular society. Therefore, mostly US-based solutions do not work as efficiently in foreign business environments as they do in the United States. In fact, many times there is a cultural hostility in the host country against an expatriate merely because of his or her origins. This hostility can be minimised and misperceptions can be clarified if an expatriate is offered meaningful training in social and cultural nuances of the host country. The following case incident reveals the challenges faced by a physician from New York City working in Saudi Arabia.

Case Incident #1

Dr Tom McDivern, a physician from New York City, was offered a two-year assignment to practise medicine in a growing urban centre in Saudi Arabia. Many of the residents in the area he was assigned to were recent immigrants from the much smaller outlying rural areas. Because Western medicine was relatively unknown to many of the people, one of Dr McDivern’s main responsibilities was to introduce himself and his services to those in the community. A meeting at a local school was organised for that specific purpose. Many people turned out.

Tom’s presentation went well. Some local residents also presented their experiences with Western medicine so others could hear the value of using his services. Some of Tom’s office staffers were also present to make appointments for those interested in seeing him when his doors opened one week later. The meeting was an obvious success. His opening day was booked solid. When that day finally arrived, Tom was anxious to greet his first patient. Thirty minutes passed, however, and neither of his first two patients arrived. He was beginning to worry about the future of his practice while wondering where his patients were. What was the major cause of Tom’s worries? (Source: “Marketing Across Cultures,” Second Edition, Jean-Claude Usunier, Prentice Hall, 1996).

The above case reveals many dimensions of Saudi Arabian culture obstructing the smooth functioning of Dr Tom McDivern. First of all, Dr McDivern was not able to perceive that the concept of time in Saudi Arabia is different from that of United States. The doctor’s patients did not appreciate the Western method of keeping appointments on time. Moreover, the patients did not appreciate that fixing an appointment with a doctor is a type of commitment. Furthermore, the patients were apprehensive about the efficacy of Western medicine because they may have had a greater faith in hakims whose practices are semi-religious and age-old. Indeed, it is also possible that the patients may have changed their minds during the week. In fact, the village elders may have persuaded them to change their minds. Even so, Dr Tom McDivern would not have been frustrated had he taken short-term training in cultural immersion prior to his arrival in Saudi Arabia. Consequently, the late arrival of patients would not have disturbed him had he known that his patients considered themselves arriving on time even if they were late by an hour or more.

The following case illustrates the perceived cultural differences in family attachments between a French engineer, who works for a Japanese company in France, and his Japanese boss.

Case Incident #2

Mr M Legrand is a French engineer who works for a Japanese company in France. One day the general manager, Mr Tanaka, calls him into his office to discuss a new project in the Middle East. He tells Mr Legrand that the company is very pleased with his dedicated work and would like him to act as chief engineer for the project. It would mean two to three years away from home, but his family would be able to accompany him and there would be considerable personal financial benefit to this position. And, of course, Mr Legrand would be performing a valuable service to the company. Mr Legrand thanks Mr Tanaka for the confidence he has in him, but says he will have to discuss it with his wife before deciding. Two days later, Mr Legrand returns and tells Mr Tanaka that both he and his wife do not like the thought of leaving France and so he does not want to accept the position. Mr Tanaka says nothing but is somewhat dumbfounded by Mr Legrand’s decision. Why is Mr Tanaka so bewildered by Mr Legrand’s decision? (Source: “Marketing Across Cultures,” Second Edition, Jean-Claude Usunier, Prentice Hall, 1996).

In the above case, Mr Tanaka believes that loyalty to the company is paramount. In contrast, the family is of secondary importance for the Japanese but not for the French. Moreover, in Japanese culture, the wife’s opinion in the matter of re-location of her husband’s job is of minimal importance. However, in France, the family has a more egalitarian ethos and the wife’s opinion carries a greater weight than in Japan. Moreover, the Japanese tend to be work-centred whereas the French tend to be oriented toward leisurely activities. In this case, Mr Tanaka believes that it is foolish for Mr Legrand to refuse financial benefits that are related to his new job. To resolve this problem, Mr Tanaka should have a heart-to-heart talk with Mr Legrand and his wife. Mr Tanaka can offer a free vacation to the couple in the Middle East, where the new job is located. This will help the French family to acclimatise to the Middle Eastern ethos.

At the same time, Mr Tanaka needs to understand that the expatriate’s spouse plays a crucial role in the potential effectiveness and retention of the manager in host locations. Companies should ensure the spouse’s interest in the assignment, including her in the pre-departure training, and provide career and family support during the assignment and upon return.

Dr Archan Mehta has a PhD in Management and is based in India. He has over 10 years of work experience in sectors like Media, Food Services, Hospitality, Education, and Security. He is currently a Consultant.

This article appeared in the May 2018 issue of HR Future magazine.

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